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Lacquered wares cross many cultures

What started as a utilitarian need for watertight objects eventually became its own art form known as lacquerware. To keep wood, pottery tin and other metal objects watertight, layers of natural lacquer were brushed onto boxes, buckets, trays and other household items. Once dried, though, lacquer turns a distinctly dark black which is not always a designer choice of color. That’s why, over time, artistic designs were added to help make the item more decorative as well as useful.

Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, is a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer and carved with small knives. Image courtesy Bally Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Lacquerware:  5000 BCE China, Japan, Korea

Around 7,000 years ago, sap from Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a tree grown and cultivated only in East Asia, was refined into a useable waterproof compound used to coat household items such as tableware, boxes, furniture, trays, bowls, screens and even coffins.

Known in China as a varnish tree, the sap is tapped by cutting into the bark and collected. Smaller branches are soaked in water and its sap is collected, all of which contains urushiol, the skin irritant in poison oak. Once exposed to air, the sap slowly turns black. After being strained and heated to remove moisture, the final product, lacquer, is stored in airtight containers ready to be brushed onto wood, tin or another metallic object.

A 17th century Chinese lacquerware dish in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The process of applying lacquer is a time-consuming process, usually over several days. Each successive layer, 20 or more at times, is left to dry and harden before another layer can be applied. Curiously, in order for lacquer to dry it must be placed in a moist atmosphere such as caves, according to early Chinese accounts. This process can take as long as 18 days before a design can be introduced. This process was eventually spread to Japan and the Korean peninsula by the sixth century.

Decoration can include gold, silver, charcoal, white lead, and mother of pearl surrounding decorative plants, animals and intricately carved domestic scenes. Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, started with a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer (red, known as cinnabar, green, brown and even purple) until it was quite thick. Once dried, an intricate design was carved by hand into the object.

Chinese lacquerware was prominent throughout each dynastic period with its process a closely guarded state secret. Exports of generally mundane consumer items began in the 17th century to Europe but by the middle of the 19th century Chinese lacquerware was no longer a stable export.

An example of a 19th century European ‘japanned’ tea tray on display at the Birmingham History Galleries, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Japanning: 17th Europe

Chinese exported its lacquerware to Europe by the early 17th century, mostly to the Netherlands, Italy, France and Great Britain by the East India Company, but it was mostly utilitarian items, not its most noted artwork. Yet, Chinese lacquerware became popular at all levels of society. The process of lacquer production as practiced in East Asia for thousands of years was limited to the sap from the varnish tree which grew only there. And China wasn’t sharing its secret. An alternative needed to be developed.

A viable lacquer was finally discovered from the secretions of the female lac bug known as Kerria lacca. Mixed with ethyl alcohol, these secretions became known as shellac, which dries into a high-gloss finish.

Black lacquer as a base with Japanese motifs such as this 18th century pocket watch was made in the UK and is on display at the Walkers Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With this discovery, Italian craftsmen saw an opportunity to expand a market for the popular East Asian lacquerware, particularly from Japan, by creating their own Asian-themed designs that they felt represented daily life there usually on heavily lacquered tin and ironware in stark black or red with gold painted decoration. Because Asian societies were generally closed to outsiders, particularly to Europeans, scenes depicted by Italian craftsmen were more imaginary than realistic.

Still, japanning, as the art form was known in Europe, became popular from the early 18th century until the late 19th century. Once its popularity declined by 1920, the focus moved away from japanning metal items to japanning bicycles. In fact, by 1887, the Sunbeam bicycle company was formed to create the ubiquitous black japanned bicycle with gold stenciled markings.

A painted toleware coffeepot that sold for $1,200. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware: 18th century Americas

By the time lacquerware was introduced in 18th century America, rolling mills were being perfected in Pontypool, England. Pressing bars of steel and iron between rotating wheels allowed for the cost-effective formation of plates, coated with tin, then stamped into household goods like trays, candle holders, breadboxes, plates and utensils for export and commercial trade.

Once formed, the goods were coated against corrosion with a special blend of linseed oil, an asphalt compound, turpentine and other industrial compounds. The final dark varnish (a version of lacquer) is called “japan black.” Henry Ford’s Model T was painted with “japan black” giving rise to his quote that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Once the varnish is applied to iron, steel or tin-plated items and cooled, the item is decorated similar to the Japanese lacquerware, known as japanning.

An example of a hand lamp that is varnished with basic ‘japan black’ without the added decoration that sold for $50. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Rather than import these items from England and France, communities in North and South America, particularly in 18th century New England (mostly Boston and Hartford, Conn.) and the Pennsylvania Dutch, manufactured, hand-painted and later stenciled their own tin, pewter and metal goods for trade and home use. It was called toleware from the French term tôle peinte or painted sheet and practiced as tole painting.

The production of hand-painted toleware lasted from early 18th century to late 19th century when its popularity declined. There has been a resurgence of tole painting from the late 20th century within communities as an individual art project with classes, workshops and even organized groups such as the Society of Decorative Painters or the National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters.

Collectibility

Acrylic paints have replaced the variations of natural and industrial lacquers common before 1950 or so. Their use is simply more efficient, cost effective to produce and is more conducive to innovation where the early lacquer was easily more time consuming and toxic to create.

Lacquers aside, in the end it is difficult to distinguish vintage lacquerware in any of its forms. The use of different lacquers might just help on an atomic level (which is why this article focuses on types of lacquer) but the decorations applied, styles used or even what colors are predominant simply don’t lend itself to specific periods, which can be easily categorized without knowing each local style. Even the carved lacquer of early China is faithfully reproduced today.

Varnishing with lacquer wasn’t limited to just household items. Furniture was also ‘japanned’ such as this chest of drawers that sold for $375. Image courtesy Dumouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

Still, certain characteristics do stand out. Japanned items from France in the 17th and early 18th century, for example, have a rougher surface and more rust from peeling varnish because they hand stamped their iron or steel plate which produced more uneven surfaces.

What do collectors like? Collectors like bright colors, intact inlays like mother of pearl or gold leaf, regional styles such as “thumb work” of the Pennsylvania Dutch, flowers, Japanese or Chinese motifs, or any number of combinations. Decorators love the blend of colors that stand out. Most examples after 1950 are widely available for under $100.

Since variation is the main theme of lacquerware, whatever its name, the first rule of collecting applies: Collect what you like first.

Blockbuster movie posters starring in Jasper52 sale May 14

Jasper52 will debut an Affordable Vintage Movie Collectibles auction on Tuesday, May 14. Original posters, lobby cards and movie stills comprise this 50-lot collection that ranges from film noir to modern cult classics.

‘Key Largo’ (Warner Bros., 1948) vintage original lobby card featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, 14in. x 11in. Estimate: $200-$300. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Get hooked on collecting vintage fishing lures

NEW YORK – Anglers have their favorite fishing holes, especially deep and dark spots few know about where the big fish lurk, and have their favorite lures to catch them. Much like their decoy compatriots, fishing lures have become highly collectible.

Gary Smith, an editor with The National Fishing Lure Collectors Club, said the best-known fishing lure makers are referred to as “The Big Five” and are Heddon, Shakespeare, Pflueger, South Bend and Creek Chub.

Heddon’s Deep Dive River Runt with original box and pocket catalog from 1951. Photo courtesy Heddon Museum

While a top five list of the most highly collectible fishing lures is debatable, and certainly personal, most collectors would likely agree that the original Heddon Frog tops the list. “Very few are known to exist, and provenance is extremely important because reproductions/fakes are out there in circulation,” Smith said. “After that, I would say that the Haskell Minnow is number two.”

This Haskell Minnow marked with the typical ‘R. Haskell Painesville, O., Pat’d Sept 20, 1859,’ 3½in. long, sold for $6,000 at Dan Morphy Auctions on Nov. 3, 2017. Prices do not include the buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Smith’s third pick for the top lure would be the Flying Helgrammite, which was made by Harry Comstock in upstate New York and was notable as one of the earliest lures having glass eyes. “Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess or preference but good candidates would be the Chautauqua Minnow, first production Heddon Minnows, early Rhodes Minnows [Rhodes morphed into Shakespeare] and first production Pflueger lures,” Smith said.

This Comstock Flying Hellgrammite earned $5,000 in November 2014 at Crossroads Angling Auction. Prices do not include the buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Crossroads Angling Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Founded in 1996 by Don and Joan Lyons, the Heddon Museum stands today in Dowagiac, Michigan, where the Heddon company made its fishing tackle.

“The James Heddon & Sons company began selling wood lures on a commercial scale in 1902 in Dowagiac, Michigan. In fact, they named their first lure the ‘Dowagiac.’ That lure today is referred to by collectors as a ‘Slope Nose in recognition of its upward facing snout,” Don Lyons said.

From that first Dowagiac lure, Heddon quickly developed a number of new lures that for the next two decades they referred to generically as Dowagiac Minnows, and added a number such as “100” or “150,” or a name such as Artistic Minnow or Crab Wiggler to distinguish the different lures.

Heddon’s Dowagiac Slope Nose lure from 1904. Photo courtesy Heddon Museum

For years, fishing tackle was purely functional and it’s hard to say just when tackle collecting, especially bait lures, took off but it took shape in the mid-1970s with the formation of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club. The club (spawning many localized clubs) promoted regular shows across the United States – initially referred to as swap meets because lures were traded, not sold – and it encourages members to share information via club publications, a mission it continues to embrace today.

“As with most hobbies, the popularity of antique fishing tackle was fueled by people who had matured, gained some disposable income and could now afford to own those things that they could only dream about as young kids who had made do with what they could afford, not what they really wanted,” the Lyons said.

A collection of South Bend fishing lures with a National Fishing Lure Collectors Club pin sold for $4,500 in July 2016 at Ellenberger Brothers Inc. Photo courtesy of Ellenberger Brothers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Lures were made in different price points and when collecting today, potential buyers must evaluate not only condition but how a specific lure was decorated (glass eye vs. painted eye), material (wood, rubber or hard plastic) and what color. Some lures were made in multiple styles. With regard to condition, Smith suggests buyers consider: “Do you want a lure that appears to be factory-new or would you prefer a lure that exhibits good honest use and therefore tells you it has tempted fish, and maybe caught them?”

People collect vintage lures for various reasons, he noted, including, “the beauty of lure construction and finishes, the link to an earlier (and seemingly less complicated) period in our history, fraternity, investment/profit, the thrill of the hunt or an appreciation of fishing lure history and owning a tangible part of it.”

Various lures like this grouping were offered at the 2016 Nationals show held by the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club. Photo courtesy of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club

Offering advice beyond doing homework, Smith said, “Be disciplined. Stay within your budget. You might want to limit your search for one company, like Creek Chub. Don’t display your lures in direct sunlight and keep artificial light to a minimum. Excessive exposure to light will cause lures to fade. Control climate as much as possible. Extremely dry air can cause paint to crack; extreme moisture encourages rust.”

“Again, as with all collectibles, collect what you enjoy,” the Lyons advise. “It’s a large and diverse hobby with regional and national clubs that will be glad to help newcomers to the hobby gain knowledge and make new friends.”

Automata: fantasy in motion

NEW YORK – Combining artistry with engineering, automata are mechanical marvels. These mechanical figures move via clockwork mechanisms, allowing them to move their hands, walk, dance and even smoke but they also embody equal parts of fancy and magic, becoming a sort of animated sculpture.

“The best automata have in common a quality of fantasy or romance that touches the heart of the viewer,” said horologist and automata expert Michael Start. He and his wife, Maria, own The House of Automata in Scotland. “A Pierrot sitting on the tip of a horned moon and serenading on a lute, a theater in a woodland setting with curtain rising to reveal a host of tiny dancers twirling to a music box or a tiny bird no bigger than a thumb tip who appears from the top of golden box to flap its wings and sing a beautiful birdsong before disappearing with a snap of the lid. The best automata are not just a mimicry of life, they portray fantasy brought to life.”

‘Pierrot Serenading the Moon,’ Lambert, Paris, circa 1890, papier-mache and clockwork automaton, sold for $7,000 March 13, 2019. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions

Many of the best automata were made by Gustave and Henry Vichy and other makers in Paris, including Leopold Lambert, who was a foreman at Maison Vichy before launching his own business, Roullet et Descamps, and the Bontems family, known for lifelike singing birds and singing bird boxes.

Auction Team Breker in Cologne, Germany, which specializes in mechanical antiques, including automata, explained that automata date back to antiquity with mechanically articulated figures powered by air or water.

The golden age of automata, employing complex mechanisms, spanned the mid-19th century until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and was centered in Paris.

A rare ‘Lune Fin de Siècle’ musical smoking moon automaton by Gustave Vichy, Paris, circa 1899, papier-mache and clockwork, sold in November 2015 at Auction Team Breker for $123,879. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers

“During this heyday period, Paris was the epicenter for classic French-style automata with the major makers being Alexandre Theroud, Jean Roullet, Gustave Vichy, Leopold Lambert, Bontems, Phalibois, Roullet et Decamps and Triboulet & Renou,” says Jeremie Ryder, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection conservator, Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J. The museum received in 2003 the Guiness collection comprising 750 historic mechanical musical instruments and automata.

‘Pierrot Écrivain (Pierrot Writing),’ automaton, circa 1895, G. Vichy, Paris, France. Photo by SFO Museum (SF Int’l. Airport Museum). Image courtesy of Morris Museum, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection

Rarity, subject matter and condition are among the driving forces in determining how valuable an antique automaton is but its personality ranks high also. “The pieces that bring the big prices at auction tend to be those with a distinct character or facial expression and a dramatic or surprising element – acrobats, entertainers, smokers and the surreal,” according to Auction Team Breker. A fitting example is the “Fin de Siècle” smoking moon automaton by Gustave & Henry Vichy that auctioned here in November 2015 for $123,879 or such charming pieces as a grand magician standing at a table performing tricks with objects under cups or an acrobat performing a handstand atop a ladder.

Detail image of an acrobat automaton that performs a handstand on two chairs, by Gustave Vichy, Paris, circa 1890, papier-mache and clockwork. Image courtesy of The House of Automata.

“Originality of costume and surface are also key factors, especially for European collectors, according to the auction house. “Sometimes a quite modest piece will command a high price because it is in especially fine condition or comes carefully preserved and unplayed with from the family of the original owners.”

Advanced private collectors and museums gravitate toward pieces that retain their “historic integrity,” meaning as original as possible, all things considered, Ryder says. Owing to the mechanical nature of automata, conservation must be undertaken with care to preserve a piece’s functionality.

Smoking Monkey by Roullet & Decamps, Paris, circa 1900; fur covered papier-mache and clockwork automaton with bellows. The automaton smokes real cigarettes. Image courtesy of The House of Automata.

“A lot can happen to a 18th or 19th century automaton, a delicate decorative artifact, through its lifetime: wars, scorching attics, moldy basements, fires, direct sunlight,” Ryder said. “One or two hundred years can take its toll. Original aspects such as costuming, face and hand-painted surfaces, structurally sound, complete and functioning clockwork mechanism as well as musical movement, are all key factors.”

Choice examples of automata evoke a strong sense of character or possess a striking personality. “Clockwork automata have been developed to perform all the functions of life and nature – every animal from tortoises to elephants with a preponderance of rabbits and every human function – and I do mean every – and the wonders of nature from radiating sun rays to stormy seas,” Smart said. “The ingenuity with which these actions were portrayed was impressive and tested in the marketplace.”

This eccentric clown musical automaton by Gustave & Henry brought $42,795 in November 2016 at Auction Team Breker. Image courtesy of Auction Team Breker and LiveAuctioneers.

“These pieces carry a sort of magic, especially when they are able to function and allowed to perform, however briefly,” Ryder said. “That’s the purpose for which they were conceived and fabricated. To remain static and never perform, they are still quite beautiful, but their full story is never told.”

 

‘Buffet Magique’ (The Magic Cupboard), probably made by Auguste Triboulet for Maison Vichy, Paris, France, circa 1910. Video courtesy of Morris Museum, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection.

A passionate wave to vintage fans

NEW YORK – Hand fans began as a strictly utilitarian item, to keep its owner, usually ladies, cool on a hot day. Picture Cleopatra reclining on a sofa while a servant fanned her with a large fan. Somewhere along the way, fans got smaller so they could travel in a bag and became quite decorative. Many types of hand fans are collectible today, including both folding fans as well as fixed fans that don’t fold.

This fan by Alexandre, circa 1880, sold in December 2018 for $2,516. It is believed to have belonged to the Infanta Maria de la Paz, daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain and her husband Francisco. Photo courtesy Tennants

The history of fans is rich, going back some 3,000 years with fixed fans being among the earliest of type, according to commentary on the website of The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London. “Few art forms combine functional, ceremonial and decorative uses as elegantly as the fan. The first European folding fans were inspired by and copied from prototypes brought in to Europe by merchant traders and the religious orders who had set up colonies along the coasts of China and even Japan. These early fans were reserved for royalty and the nobility and, as expensive toys, were regarded as a status symbol.”

Some collectors are eclectic, collecting a variety of fan styles but many specialize in one type, such as those advertising a product or made of bone or lace or featuring a certain decoration theme.

“People sometimes want to collect fans from different countries or that are defined by their time period,” says Abbey Block Cash, president of the Fan Association of North America. “Fans are also desirable based on their materials; the sticks may be constructed of lacquer, carved ivory, resin, tortoise, bone, wood, silver, gold, metal, or mother of pearl. The fan leaf may be of silk, cotton, satin, lace, decoupe or feathers.

An unusual Brussels lace fan mounted on pierced and gilded mother-of-pearl sticks and lace, circa 1880s, sold for $2,914 in March 2019 at Tennants. Photo courtesy Tennants

“The subject matter of desirable fans will also vary from love scenes to animals, landscapes, occupations, and activities engaged in by individuals, including intimate relationships,” she said. “Fan designs may be hand-colored, printed, lithographed or painted – and they may be adorned with embellishments such as sequins, pique work, weavings or precious or semiprecious stones.”

Mary Cooper, a longtime dealer in antique costume/textiles and publicity officer for the Fan Circle International, began selling vintage dresses while still a student in England about 40 years ago. Her passion for fans began when searching for an antique lace veil to wear for her wedding and finding a lacy fan.

A Duvelleroy fan with monture by Podani, circa 1880s. Photo courtesy the collection of The Fan Museum, UK

Cooper said fans ultimately became fashion accessories, able to be folded up and hung from a lady’s belt or carried in a handbag. “You want something that’s practical, is pretty and fits in a bag but has the sort of amazement factor.”

She has traded in and collected many lace fans and is personally drawn to Art Deco and Art Nouveau fans, around the same time (early 1900s) that women smoking cigarettes was no longer taboo, bringing about the demise of fans. Holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, women stopped carrying fans as they didn’t have a spare hand to hold it, she explained.

Detailing the history of fans, she said, “If you can imagine trade starting from Asia into Europe, the import agencies brought into Italy and into Marseilles in the south of France. The Italian artists used to paint a leaf, which is what we what we call the paper that sits on top [of the fan].” Fan leafs are often made of paper today but in those days it was lambskin or goatskin, made thin, she explained. “That’s one of the ways we can tell the age of a fan as in what that bit on the top is made of,” she said.

A vividly hand painted paper folding fan with Texas scenes realized $30,000 in April 2013 at Dorothy Sloan – Rare Books. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Sloan – Rare Books and LiveAuctioneers

By the 18th century, folding hand fans were made throughout Europe, into England and later in America; crafted of such elegant materials as tortoiseshell, ivory, bone and lace. The decoration on their leaves was ornate and meant to spark conversations among the fashionable ladies carrying them as well as conveying status.

Among the most famous of Europe’s fan makers were Felix Alexandre (b. 1823), who made fans for European royalty, Lachelin and Kees, and last but not least the House of Duvelleroy, founded in 1827 to make fans fashionable again. Interestingly, in 2010 two women pooled their savings to buy the rights to trade as Duvelleroy and are again making fans.

An early calligraphy paper fan by noted Chinese artist Zhang DaQian, hand-painted, earned $13,495 in June 2017 at Five Star Auctions & Appraisals. Photo courtesy of Five Star Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers

Fans from all antique periods are popular but perhaps none more so than circa 1890s-1920s fans “where you have Art Nouveau styling, which was just beautiful design, color and shaping to the fan itself and good artists painting them,” Cooper said, adding that fans from that brief period are few, which pushes up the price. Faberge fans are also rare and highly collectible.

“You either want to buy a fan made in small numbers or you want to buy a fan with what we call provenance,” she said. “As a collector, I know I can’t collect one belonging to Queen Elizabeth II because she keeps them, but I can collect from someone who was in high society when fans were popular. We are always looking for fans that belong to somebody, it’s important if we can find them but it is quite a challenge, so you have to content yourself with just high-quality ones.” Conversely, cheaply mass-produced fans were not expected to last, so surviving examples can be rare and desirable.

Clearing the air on Bakelite collectibles

Billed as the “material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite went into commercial production in 1922.

An article in the October 1925 issue of the trade publication Plastics magazine claimed the new synthetic phenolic resin could be used for “jewelry, smokers’ articles … sealing electric light bulbs in metal bases … varnishes … electric coils, lacquers … silent gears … and molding material, from which are formed innumerable articles of utility and beauty.” We know that resin today as Bakelite, named after its inventor, Leo Baekeland, the chemist whose process was patented in 1909.

The scientific name, though, is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, “a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde,” according to a Wikipedia entry. This revolutionary new type of phenolic resin, or synthetic plastic, was heat resistant, did not conduct electricity, was completely insoluble, totally inflexible and much more economical to produce in large quantities than celluloid, the plastic of the time. It was perfect for molding articles of utility such as insulators, military equipment, automobile parts and the early rotary dial telephone.

The case of this Wards Airline brand tabletop radio is made of molded Bakelite. Image coutesy of Goldfinch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The first tabletop radio, though, was one of the first items that was both an article of utility and of beauty when introduced in dark brown, black and dark marbled Bakelite. While not exactly a decorator choice, the darker colors concealed the use of cotton, paper, glass fabrics, nylon, canvas, linen, sawdust, fiber and even asbestos to strengthen an otherwise brittle compound.

But, if darker tones represented early Bakelite, how is it jewelry and other items made of lighter, mostly primary colors are commonly sold as Bakelite? Because those items are made of Catalin.

The 1940s FADA brand tabletop radio is a prized collector’s item for its Catalin case in butterscotch with red trim. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Known as a cast phenol formaldehyde resin, Catalin, created in 1927, is a thermosetting polymer not unlike Bakelite, except the production is in two stages, where Bakelite requires more of a multistage curing process. More importantly, Catalin was transparent allowing the use of color or mixture of colors during the manufacturing process. Jewelry, bangles, beads, brooches, tableware and other useful household items are made of Catalin, although it is usually identified as Bakelite to collectors.

There are key differences in Bakelite and Catalin. As was mentioned, Bakelite is manufactured with fillers and produced in darker colors to disguise the fillers making the item more stable over time. Bakelite also has a heavier feel.

Different examples of Bakelite and Catalin bangles with plain, worked and laminated versions that sold at auction for $300. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

On the other hand, Catalin, because of its shorter manufacturing process is lighter but less stable and eventually will crack or craze. Early colorful radios from FADA and Emerson made from Catalin, for example, tend to warp, while the colors tend to darken over time with white turning to yellow.

Bracelets in vibrant green, yellow, red or combined shades laminated together for a more colorful style are the most desired in their original shade, with figurals in the shape of plants, animals and flowers easily the most sought after by collectors.

Other Early Plastics

Collectors will occasionally find other early plastic-like material advertised at auction. Some were experimental before Bakelite or Catalin and others just had small production runs. They are no longer being manufactured, but turn up as collectibles.

Early celluloid was generally used for household items such as the handle for this German-made straight razor, which depicting a zeppelin flying over a city. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans and Associates and LiveAuctioneers

Celluloid is considered the first true thermoplastic when it was marketed as Parkesine in 1856 and Xylonite in 1869. It is made from a compound of nitrocellulose and camphor which is quite flammable. The covering over early political buttons, billiard balls, film stock until 1950, and vintage ivory-like handles were made with celluloid. Pingpong balls and some guitar picks are still made from celluloid today.

Political buttons like this rare William Jennings Bryan/John W. Kern pocket mirror of 1900 used celluloid as an overlay. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

By 1880 Crystalate, invented by George Henry Burt, from nitrocellulose, camphor and alcohol, was based on an earlier form of plastic known as bonzoline. Crystalate was used mostly for gramaphone records and billiard balls and has long since been discontinued.

Faturan, possibly named for chemist Esmaeel Almail Faturan in the early 19th century originally mixed natural resins to form worry beads (komboloi) and counting beads (misbaha). A synthetic version made by Traun & Son, a German company, was made from early 20th century to the 1940s. Original Faturan, though, eventually oxides to a dark red no matter the original color and is rare as a collectible.

Galalith is a late 19th century plastic that utilized casein (found in milk) and formaldehyde to form a milky white hard plastic, but once set it could not be molded. By World War II, production was dramatically reduced to save milk for civilian use. Fashion designer Coco Chanel utilized galalith as costume jewelry and is still being produced mostly as buttons. Galalith emits a milky smell when rubbed.

Micarta is a phenolic resin like the others, but was used as a laminate over linen, canvas, paper, fiberglass and carbon fiber. Developed by George Westinghouse by 1910, it was used to make knife handles, handgun grips, pool cues, hardhats and early fan blades. Micarta is usually dark in color.

Virtually all of these early plastics have been either discontinued or have limited industrial use since the 1950s due to its labor-intensive mold and casting process. Yet, auction results seem to treat these early plastics similarly when it comes to collector value, except Faturan which has become more of a museum piece due to its rarity.

‘Fakelite’

There are contemporary plastics that resemble Bakelite, so-called “Fakelites” that are treated differently. These fakes have similar design and production methods as Bakelite and are hard to spot except on close examination. Veteran collectors know the uniquely identifiable “clunk” sound that two pieces of vintage Bakelite make when tapped together. Bakelite also feels heavier. Collectors sometimes use the hot water method to test for authentic Bakelite (dip in hot water, rub and test for the smell of formaldehyde) or the 409 method (just a touch of Formula 409 cleaner or Simichrome brand polish on a cotton swab on a hidden area and the swab should turn yellow; rinse the item immediately). You can just dry rub it as well and smell the telltale formaldehyde (works best with dark Bakelite).

Vintage Bakelite may also have been reworked, recut or redesigned without being marked as such. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is a fake or even a reproduction and its auction value isn’t compromised, but it may be judged differently from its original use. Just be warned that reworking Bakelite yourself produces the harmful effects from the phenol and formaldehyde used in its manufacture.

As it turns out, whether wearing Catalin bangles from Coco Chanel or listening to big bands on an Emerson Bakelite radio, whatever you call it, they’re equally collectible.

Resources

Baker, L. Plastic Jewelry of the 20th Century, 2003

Holdsworth, Ian, Cast Phenolic Resin, Plastics Historical Society, plastiquarian.com, undated

Meikle, Jeffrey L., American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995

Wiggins, Pamela, Collecting Bakelite Jewelry, sprucecrafts.com, April 4, 2014

Wiggins, Pamela, 6 Ways to Identify Bakelite, sprucecrafts.com, August 24, 2018

Wikipedia.com, Bakelite, undated

Good vibes coming from Jasper52 vintage guitar auction Feb. 20

Whether you play gypsy jazz, blues or garage band rock ’n’ roll, the Jasper52 online auction of vintage guitars on Wednesday, Feb. 20, likely has an instrument to amp your interest. Acoustic Spanish, Romantic and concert guitars are joined by a chorus of more than a dozen electric guitars. A 1920s banjo and a three-quarter-size French violin are included for good measure.

Fenton-Weill solid body electric guitar made in England in 1961, with original case. Estimate: $1,600-$1,700. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

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Mantiques: Artful decorations for the man cave

There’s a category of collectibles that probably didn’t even exist 10 years ago but which is so popular today that entire auctions are exclusively dedicated to it. They’re called “mantiques” – items that manly men and the women who love them use to decorate their basement, garage or den—the man cave.

Mantiques can take on many forms. Some of the more common mantiques include old gas station signs, anything coin-op (slot machines, Coke machines, trade stimulators, jukeboxes, pinball machines, vending machines), beer trays, barber shop memorabilia and even old cars.

“Collecting mantiques may start as picking up a novelty here or there, but it can quickly explode into filling a den or garage with amazing finds,” said Eric Bradley, Heritage Auctions’ Director of Public Relations. “Each collection is different, and there’s no limit to how these disparate collections come together. Once assembled, the objects harmonize to do one thing: tell a story about the collector and their intellect, sense of humor and proclivities.” Bradley knows whereof he speaks. He literally wrote the book on the subject: Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff.

Twentieth-century Kuntz ‘St. Bernard’ tin litho beer tray (Waterloo, Ontario), made and signed by Kaufmann & Strauss (New York). Price realized: CA $5,463 in September 2018. Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. image

Recently, Miller & Miller Auctions in Canada held an auction titled “Mantiques! Gentlemen’s Collectibles.” “I’ve never seen such anticipation for an auction,” said Justin Miller, of Miller & Miller Auctions. “The energy in the room from the beginning of the sale was unmistakable. Many items were fresh to the market, unlocked from 30- and 40-year collections. The prices tell the story. Collectors were fighting to get what they wanted.” Canadian auction records were shattered, and the top lot was a 1950 Plymouth woody station wagon (CA$35,400).

What took mantiques so long to come into their own? Answer: they’ve been here all along, just under a different name. “If you want to trace the evolution of mantiques, it was a genre that for years was called country store collectibles,” said Ben Lennox, Miller & Miller’s Operations Manager. “Tobacciana, petroliana, breweriana and automobilia—these all fit under one neat and tidy umbrella. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when collectors began to get more refined in their search for basement and garage items that the term ‘man cave’ and later ‘mantiques’ came into vogue.”

Goodrich Tires Canadian Mountie porcelain sign from the 1930s, among Canada’s most highly coveted signs and one of the nicest unrestored examples known. Price realized: CA$20,060 in September 2018. Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. image

Today, gentlemen’s objets de vertu are in great demand, and that demand is only growing stronger. The category has expanded, to include items ranging from vintage watches and cameras to tufted-leather and quarter-sawn oak furniture. Women have even muscled their sway into the conversation, searching for items to outfit their “she-shacks” —items of a softer tone for their personal home space, such as quilts, textiles and kitchen collectibles. For the guys, some things have been, and will always be, popular, like gas station signs and beer trays.

American folk-art carved pine eagle in the manner of Wilhelm Schimmel, 19th century. Price realized: $8,125, Sept. 22-25, 2017. Heritage Auctions image

Sports, of course, can be a huge component of a man cave. The website for Steiner Sports has a toolbar category titled “Man Cave Essentials.” Items for sale include an aluminum sign that reads “NOTICE – Bleachers Are Now Alcohol Free” ($59.99); a Giancarlo Stanton 8-by-10-inch plaque with game-used Yankee Stadium dirt ($24.99); an Oklahoma City Thunder subway sign wall-art photo, framed ($59.99); and a Sacramento Kings “Home Sweet Home” sign ($59.99).

Those signs are replicas, which explains the low prices. To own or display a baseball or football signed by a marquee player or group of players understandably will cost much more.

One’s budget can be an important factor when outfitting a man cave. A restored 1950s-era Wurlitzer bubbler jukebox, for example, will set you back thousands, but a man on a budget might be just as happy with an old Bakelite AM radio and reproduction rock ’n’ roll poster from the same era. The effect is the same: to recreate a feel for a carefree time and place long past.

Bally Manufacturing Art Deco Skyscraper pinball machine, circa 1934. Price realized: $3,750, Sept. 22-25, 2017. Heritage Auctions image

The costliest man cave items, not surprisingly, are vintage cars and motorcycles. But even the big-name car auction houses like RM Auction and Barrett Jackson now incorporate petroliana and automobilia collectibles into their sales as ancillary offerings, and have even held stand-alone sales for just those items—no cars at all. Morphy’s also conducts highly successful auctions of petroliana and automobilia.

Vintage motorcycles hold particular appeal to men, plus they take up far less space than a car. Prices are robust, too. At auction recently in Texas, a 1951 Indian Blackhawk Chief in beautiful condition roared away for just over $12,000.

Man caves are nothing new. They date back to the days of the Industrial Revolution, when the home was often divided into spheres defined by gender. For men, who were all about politics, business and the law, that meant a place where they could let it all hang out, without fear of offending the womenfolk. The ladies tended to the rest of the house and were in charge of maintaining a strong moral fiber within the family. Over time, men expanded their reach into the mantiques realm, adding things like woodworking tools, vintage firearms and edged weapons, and such.

Two Pius Lang mother-of-pearl and stainless-steel penknives with Associated Penknife, circa 1960. Price realized: $6,250, Sept. 22-25, 2017. Heritage Auctions image

Much later, with the debut of TV shows like Pawn Stars (2009) and American Pickers (2010), interest in the idea of “antiques for men” (or “mantiques”) enjoyed a sharp spike. Men everywhere got the itch to get out there, climb through some old barns, get their hands dirty and bring home a rusty Texaco sign. Suddenly, antiques shopping was less intimidating to the average Joe.

Are mantiques here to stay? Judging by the fact that there are shops springing up that are dedicated expressly to man cave collectibles, the easy answer is yes. “The only caveat I have is that people should be on their guard for fakes and reproductions, especially when it comes to porcelain signs,” Ben Lennox said. “They’re coming out of India, and some of them are scary good, but if you look for certain things, like correct fonts and logo color matches, whether there are grommets where the holes are, etc., they’re fairly easy to spot. Just don’t let it deter you. Be a man, get out there and look!”

Vote Yes on Campaign Buttons

With the midterms looming and politics on everyone’s mind, no wonder collectors of political campaign buttons and pinbacks are in their glory, chasing up and adding new selections to what they already have. A report appearing two years ago in LiveAuctioneers’ digital newspaper Auction Central News identified campaign buttons as the most popular type of political memorabilia, followed by textiles, flags and posters. But why pinbacks and buttons? After all, they’re smaller and visually less impactful.

“Their size accounts for much of their appeal,” explained Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions and a lifelong collector of political pins. He is also the author of several books on the subject. “To me, they’re like miniature posters, and they don’t take up a mansionful of space. They’re wonderful artifacts from their time, and getting into the game is both cheap and easy.”

Indeed, nice examples from the 1896 presidential campaigns of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (spoiler alert: McKinley won) can be bought for as little as ten or fifteen dollars – and in nice condition! There’s a reason for that: 1896 was the first year that pinback buttons, patented only three years earlier, were mass-produced by the millions, at little cost. Prior to that, the buttons were mostly just that – buttons, which had to be sewn onto a person’s garment.

This McKinley & Hobart “Our Choice” mechanical jugate stud example, over 100 years old, sold for a very reasonable $112.50 at Heritage Auctions on Aug. 26, 2018.

To be clear, a pinback button is one that can be temporarily fastened to the surface of a garment using its attached safety pin. The fastening mechanism is anchored to the back side of the button-shaped metal disc, either flat or concave, leaving an area on the front of the button to carry an image or printed message. Such was the invention patented by Benjamin S. Whitehead in 1893.

Political campaign buttons have been around in this country literally since the election of President George Washington. At his inauguration, metal pins bearing the phrase, “Long Live the President” were worn by supporters. The phrase was probably chosen as a riff on “God Save the King!,” which the newly independent Americans had been accustomed to cheering back home in Mother England. That pin today, by the way, easily fetches in the thousands of dollars.

Think about it – what other type of collectible, outside of maybe rocks and bottles, can be picked up for free? That’s a trick question. Yes, you can gather pins and buttons at rallies, speeches and a campaign headquarters for free, but there will be a cost when buying at auction, on eBay or at an antiques shop or flea market. The spread is a wide one, as certain “Holy Grail” buttons fetch tens of thousands of dollars, while a group lot of 50 common pins might bring $20.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, we sold a Cox-Roosevelt pinback from the 1920 presidential election for $47,278,” Hake said. “Images of the two men were on the pin, as was the slogan ‘Americanize America.’ It was a record for that particular pin, but is by no means a record for a political pinback. I’ve seen Washington buttons and other rarities top the $100,000 mark. But that’s what makes the hobby so great. There’s attractive product at both ends of the market, and prices are on the rise.”

This 1920 campaign button for the Democratic ticket of James Cox-Franklin D. Roosevelt sold for $47,278 at Hake Auctions #222, held November 2017. It was a record for the pinback.

Ted Hake was first introduced to pinbacks at age five, when a friend of his mother’s – an antiques enthusiast – gave him a pin that promoted World War I Liberty Bonds. He was instantly enchanted and began collecting more pins, in varying types, not just political. Then, in 1951, his father suggested he start collecting coins, and for a time the pins got put aside. But an encounter at a local coin shop brought Ted right back to collecting buttons and pins.

“A friend of the fellow who ran the coin store was a collector of William Jennings Bryan buttons, and he had some on display for sale there,” he recalled. “It cost hardly anything to buy one, so I did and collected political buttons from then on.” Today, Ted is a member in good standing with the American Political Items Collectors (www.apic.us) and was even given the group’s coveted Lifetime Achievement Award.

The first political button to show a photographic image was from Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. Lincoln, as well as his opponents, used the tintype (or ferrotype) process, a photograph made of tin and dark enamel or lacquer. Lincoln’s pins featured Honest Abe’s image on the front and a locking pin on the back – a precursor to the 1896 pinback.

This Abraham Lincoln 1864 ferrotype badge (with running mate Andrew Johnson on the reverse) sold for $1,947 at Hake’s #222, held Nov. 2017.

Since around 1916, campaign buttons have been produced by lithographing the image directly onto the metal disc. One of the more famous uses of campaign buttons occurred during the 1940 U.S. presidential election, when Wendell Willkie’s campaign mass-produced millions of lithographed slogan buttons in fast response to news items about his opponent President Franklin Roosevelt.

It wasn’t until after World War II that collectors found each other and organized the hobby. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower unknowingly fed into Americans’ appetite for the pins when it became a trend to wear an “I Like Ike” button on one’s lapel. Notice no political party is mentioned. That’s because the slogan was coined initially, to encourage Eisenhower (who was still serving as Armed Forces Chief of Staff) to commit to either the Republican or Democratic party, something he had not yet done. It worked, as the slogan helped nudge the war-hero general into the race, on the Republican side.

In the 1960s, “grassroots buttons” began popping up. These were produced not by the presidential campaigns themselves, but by regular, everyday people who wanted to either show support for a candidate or bash an opponent. An example was a 1968 pin opposing the Democrat contender Eugene McCarthy. The pin – somewhat inexplicably – said, “McCarthy for Fuhrer.”

Today, sadly, increasing advertising expenses, plus legal limits on expenditures, have led many American political campaigns to abandon buttons altogether in favor of disposable lapel stickers – which are far less expensive to produce – or even virtual campaign buttons, or “web buttons.” Internet users simply place them on their personal websites. Wide distribution is nearly cost free.

A Roosevelt/Fairbanks 1904 “Souvenir of Pretzel Town – Reading, PA” jugate button sold at Hake’s on May 14, 2018 for $9,675. Image courtesy of Hake’s and LiveAuctioneers.

But for Ted Hake and many others like him, nothing will ever replace the hold-in-your-hands little buttons and pinbacks that have been part of the nation’s election culture since the very birth of our nation. “Everyday I can look online or attend a show and see a pin I’ve never seen before,” Hake said. “It really is a wonderful little hobby, and great for every taste and budget.”

Cigar store figures: treasured folk art

From around 1840 to 1910, life-size cigar store figures of Indian chiefs, braves and princesses – mostly carved from wood but some cast from zinc, too – could be seen inside or outside nearly every tobacco shop in America. The U.S. census from 1860 listed no fewer than 2,269 active wood carvers. Of those, 959 were living in New York, the epicenter of cigar store Indian manufacture. New York City was the unofficial headquarters for studios producing cigar store Indians, or “show figures,” as carvers called them.

This cigar store Indian statue sold for $65,000 + buyer’s premium in Material Culture’s May 26, 2013 auction in Philadelphia. It was crafted around 1850 by John Cromwell (1805-1873), who opened his first shop in New York City when he was 26.

The most famous and highly collected carvers are Samuel Robb, Thomas V. Brooks, J. W. Fiske, Julius T. Melchers, John Cromwell and William Demuth – although Demuth was not himself a carver but a tobacco products distributor who operated a carving studio. Of the group, all but one (Melchers) worked in New York City. They all even apprenticed under one another at various points in time; that’s how tightly knit the carving community was.

Melchers, the outlier, operated out of Detroit, and was the only carver who was a classically trained artist. The others were more or less folk artists and, in fact, cigar store Indians are generally considered a category of folk art. Melchers, it is said, used actual Native Americans as models in creating his highly detailed, true-to-life creations. In that regard, he’s in the top tier of most desired carvers in the collecting community.

As anyone who’s even casually familiar with the genre knows, cigar store Indians can fetch dizzying dollars at auction. “We sold a Samuel Robb figure at one of our sales not long ago for over $100,000, but that’s not unusual,” said Mike Eckles, owner of Showtime Auction Services in Woodhaven, Michigan. “Cigar store Indians sell for in the six figures all the time. They’re life-size expressions of a time gone by, and people just love them.”

When Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas auctioned this cigar store Indian attributed to Samuel Robb in May 2010 for $203,150, it set a new auction record.

In May 2010, a carved cigar store Indian done in the manner of Samuel Robb – but not definitively attributed to him, since it was unsigned (most weren’t) – was sold for $203,150 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. At the time, it was a world record price, owing to the figure’s original paint, superb condition, impeccable provenance and detailed features. The male chief figure stood 75½ inches tall, including the base.

“Condition and original paint are especially important,” said Marsha Dixie, Heritage’s Consignment Director in the Historical Department. “Keep in mind, these figures were usually outdoors, year-round, exposed to the elements, with people sometimes throwing things at them or even hacking at them. As for paint, it was common for people to re-paint the figures, thinking they were doing the right thing. To a collector, that’s not a good thing. Patina is everything.”

The Heritage record was demolished in 2013 when a female figure – known in the trade as a cigar store princess – sold for a staggering $745,500 (inclusive of 15 percent buyer’s premium) at a sale held by Guyette & Deeter. The Maryland-based firm’s specialty is duck decoys, another genre of carved collectible that routinely sees six-figure prices. The cigar store princess was carved either by Robb or Brooks (again, unsigned) and overall stood 83 inches tall.

The current world auction record for a cigar store Indian figure was set by this spectacular example attributed to the shop of Samuel Robb or Thomas V. Brooks (it’s unsigned, so no one knows for sure). It fetched $745,500 at Guyette & Deeter in November 2013.

“I had known the owner of the figure for quite a few years,” said Jon Deeter of Guyette & Deeter. “It had been used and never traveled far from downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Its condition was pristine and it was a very attractive princess. We’ve sold other Indians in the mid-five-figure range. They’re fun to work with and are a wonderful slice of American folk art.” The sale price still stands as a record today, although it will doubtless be shattered at some point in the future.

Not all cigar store Indians sell for six figures. This carved and painted Indian chief, probably made by Thomas V. Brooks in the 19th century, sold for a very reasonable $13,800 at Cottone Auctions’ March 25, 2017 sale in Geneseo, N.Y.

The prices for better examples continue on an upward trajectory, but it wasn’t always that way. A New York Times article from 1974 stated, “It was not until the 1950s that the general public began to realize that cigar store Indians were anything more than firewood.” The article pointed out that prices in 1974 were 10 times what they were just 20 years earlier. Nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, earlier time simply swept the category up to the big time.

One person who may own the next record-breaker is Mark Goldman, a collector and tobacconist in New York City. He began collecting in 1967 and today has over 100 life-size figures, by all the major carvers. But the one he thinks might trump them all is an early Punch figure by James “Jersey Jim” Campbell. Goldman bought it years ago when it was deaccessioned by a now-defunct U.S. Tobacco museum in Nashville. He says it’s worth about $500,000 today.

“Collectors today fall into one of two categories,” Goldman said, “people who are looking to outfit their man-caves and serious collectors. The man-cavers might be happy with a simple replica, which they can buy for around $500 or $600. The serious collectors bring serious money to the table, and are keenly aware of the often-subtle differences that can distinguish an ordinary cigar store Indian from a highly valuable piece of folk art.”

These cigar store Indians, both by Julius T. Melchers, are from the inventory of Mark Goldman, who lives in New York City and owns the largest collection of such figures in the U.S., with over 100 life-size examples, by all the famous carvers.

Aside from the obvious markers like paint and condition, Goldman says he also looks for what he calls movement. “A Samuel Robb Indian with a rose, for example, or with crossed legs, or who is showing a smile instead of a stern, steady expression, might double or even triple the value of a figure that doesn’t show those things.” Goldman said whether a figure is male or female (about an equal number of each was produced) matters little. His collection is half and half.

Books on the subject that collectors, or people considering collecting, refer to include Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried (the title refers to what Samuel Robb gave as his occupation on his marriage certificate), Hunting Indians in a Taxi Cab by Kate Sanborn (if you can find a copy; it was written in 1911), Cigar Store Figures by Pendergast & Ware, and The Ship Carver’s Art by Ralph Sessions. By the way, and fakes and repros are out there, so caveat emptor!