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Russian Lacquer Boxes

Lacquered wares – wood or metal objects decorated with coats of lacquer – date from antiquity. This opulent art, however, reached Russia in the 18th century when Peter the Great “Westernized” the country.
Over time, four great schools of Russian lacquerware arose in villages near Moscow, each developing a distinct style based on specific traditions and techniques.

Russian lacquer snuffbox, circa 1860, its hinged lid finely painted with scene of a family at the market, the interior in faux tortoise shell. Lukutin mark beneath the Imperial Warrant. This item was acquired by the consignor from the noted exhibition, “Russian Lacquer Art From Two Centuries,” Museum For Lacquer Art, Münster, Germany, 1996. Sold for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Images courtesy of Jackson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The earliest, dating from 1795, produced lacquered, papier-mâché visors for army helmets, as well as lacquered snuffboxes. When inherited by Piotr Lukutin, this workshop also produced papier-mâché match boxes and cigar cases, typically depicting sentimental scenes of Russian life.
Preparation was extensive, generally taking an average of six weeks. Yet boiling these lightweight, handcrafted boxes in linseed oil, then oven-drying, priming, polishing, and lacquering them, made them not only durable but also impervious to water.

Russian lacquered covered box, Fedoskino, depicts a Snow Girl from a Russian fairy tale, hand-painted. Realized $300 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

When Lukutin’s workshop closed in 1904, its craftsmen continued independently under the name of their village, Fedoskino. “Fedoskinos,” created with successive layers of thin oil paint, agleam with mother-of-pearl, metallic powders, or gold-leaf underlay, are famed for their detail, visual depth, and luminescence. Many portray realistic scenes of rustic landscapes or peasants dancing, fetching water or assembling tree-bark shoes. Others depict famous personalities, miniature reproductions of classic paintings, or favorite fairy tales, like Father Frost and the Maiden, The Frog Princess, and Ruslan and Ludmila. “Fedoskino” typically appears at the center or left lower margin of these miniatures. Artists’ signatures, rendered in complementary shades, appear to the right.

A rare, very fine, highly detailed icon “Praise the Lord From the Heavens,” Central Russian, Palekh, circa 1800. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Düsseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

After the 1917 Revolution, Russian authorities widely suppressed religious expression, so craftsmen of Palekh, a village long recognized for its superb Russian Orthodox icons, applied their extraordinary skills to lacquered boxes instead. Like their icons, “Palekhs” feature brilliant, egg-based tempera images against dark, solid grounds, enhanced by fine gold or silver leaf ornamentation.

Russian Palekh lacquer box, signed Alexei Vatagin (1881-1947), dated 1926 and N 1838. Realized $1,800 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many portray popular folk songs, legends, ballets, operas and poems with images of elongated, icon-like figures. Others feature traditional images, like fierce Cossacks atop majestic steeds, spirited “troikas,” or three-horse teams, pulling sledges through the snow; or unfolding folk narratives like “The Tale of the Humpback Pony.” More contemporary Palekhs depict dramatic scenes of Soviet life , the USSR emblem or portraits of Joseph Stalin. Many are signed in fine gold script.

Agitlak papier-mache Palekh miniature box, tempera on varnished papier-mache depicting scenes of Soviet life with portrait of Joseph Stalin and USSR emblem. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Some describe Palekh miniatures as “small miracles,” owing to their fine workmanship and illustrious lineage.
Craftsmen in nearby Kholui also originally made icons before venturing into lacquer boxes. While their boxes feature egg-based tempera images embellished with gold-leaf highlight, their designs are more realistic, less nuanced, and bolder. In addition, “Kholui” palettes feature employ reds, yellows, browns, and orange against bright, dramatic, swirled backgrounds.
Kholui lacquer boxes often depict ancient cathedrals, churches, convents, monasteries, or the architectural glories of historical cities like Suzdal or Yaroslavl. Many, celebrating the joys of nature, depict local landscapes, like the springtime floods along Kholui’s picturesque river, the Teza. Some are more fanciful and portray sweeping oral epic poems or beloved fairy tales like “Seven Semeons” or “Scarlet Flower.” Others depict traditional Russian customs, like greeting guests with loaves of bread and loaves of salt.

Russian hand-painted lacquer box, “Bread & Salt,” depicting a woman in kokoshnik [traditional Russian headdress] offering traditional welcome of loaf of bread and cup of salt. Made in Kholui, artist-signed and dated “Rozova 2012.” Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

Mystera was once an icon-making village, too. But unlike Fedoskino, Kholui, and Palekh boxes, their designs were decorated only the lids. Some are edged in lacy gold or silver and depict fine, floral bouquets. Others portray villages, fields, or forests (replete with faraway blue and lilac-hued hills and dales), romantically melting into pale, egg-based tempera pink, blue, gold, or ivory backgrounds.
Other “Mysteras” depict seasonal fairs, festivities, or traditional Russian activities like mushroom or berry-picking. More dynamic examples commemorate historic events or heroic battles. Others feature colorful fantasies inspired by Russian songs, legends, fairy tales, and literary works like Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Antique Russian lacquer boxes are prized not only for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship but also for the passion and national pride their images evoke. Because each box is a handmade artwork, collecting opportunities are endless, and the potential discovery of a new addition to one’s collection is always just around the corner.

Luxurious decoratives lead Aug. 21 Inspired Interiors auction

Beautiful European ceramics, impressive antique furniture, modern decorative art and colorful Murano glass are among the unique treasures entered in Jasper52’s August 21 Inspired Interiors Decorative Arts Auction.

19th century Swedish Gotheburg gilt armchair with griffin-form supports. Estimate $4,000-$5,000

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Pennsylvania needlework: a stitch in time

Examples of 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania needlework – samplers, show towels, still life floral depictions, aprons and bibs, state seals and more – are marvelous expressions of American folk art. Some are so finely detailed, it’s hard to believe they were wrought by young girls barely in their teens, some even younger.

Rare Pennsylvania cross-stitch needlework sampler signed “Lucinda Clark” and dated 1853. Depicts a red house surrounded by a fence and trees. Contemporary frame. Very good condition. Framed size: 22¾” x 20.” Est. $600-$800, sold for $325 at an auction held Nov. 3, 2012 by Morphy Auctions

“The enduring appeal of Pennsylvania textile arts stems from its long and rich needlework tradition,” said Will Kimbrough, Vice President and Department Head of Americana and Fine & Decorative Arts at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. “This tradition is represented by any number of iconic pieces from varying regions, time periods, and styles – from the band samplers of Colonial Philadelphia, to the silk-embroidered pictures and memorials popular in the Federal period, to the pictorially exuberant compositions of Mary Tidball’s school operating at the western edge of the state in the mid-19th century.”

Kimbrough added, “This deep Pennsylvania needlework tradition is undoubtedly linked with the strong Quaker and Moravian influence in the early settlement of the state. The vast majority of this needlework was produced in schools, and the Quaker and Moravian emphasis on education led to the widespread establishment of affordable educational opportunities for men and woman alike in the early period.”

Diminutive Pennsylvania needlework pictorial sampler, silk on linen, “R.L” initials above a flower basket flanked by birds and hearts, all within a delicate rosebud border. Early wood frame with early or original backing board. Second quarter 19th century. 5¾” x 5¾” sight. Est. $100-$200, sold for $120 at an auction held Nov. 13, 2016 by Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Va.

The standard curriculum for girls in these schools, in both the English and Germanic models, included needlework as a core component of a young woman’s education. “Accordingly, more schoolgirl needlework from Pennsylvania survives in comparison with that produced in other states.”

Kaitlyn Julian of Pook & Pook, Inc., in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, said we should thank devoted scholars for their curiosity and dedicated studies to the subject of samplers. “Important research has invigorated the market and compelled collectors to appreciate the historic context and intrinsic value of samplers,” Julian said. “In the past, samplers may have been seen as frivolous pursuits or old-fashioned crafts made by little girls, but research carried out over the past few decades has revealed the extent of the craft and, more importantly, connected collectors to the young women behind the craft.”

Large Pennsylvania schoolgirl needlework sampler by Sarah Ann Smith, age 10, circa 1825, the top register with a flower arrangement and pair of birds over a homily “Sarah Ann Smith/In the tenth year of my age/My mind was thus ingaged/While on this fLowing canvass stands/The Labour of my youthful hands,” frame size 21¾” x 22¾.” Est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $750 at an auction held June 13, 2015 by Michaan’s Auctions.

The definitive reference book for samplers is Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, published in 1993. As the body of knowledge on samplers deepened, especially in the 1990s after the publication of Ring’s book, auction values climbed. “We saw many important collections cross the auction block, like Joan Stephens’ collection in 1997 and Betty Ring’s collection later in 2012,” Julian pointed out.

She continued, “I believe a factor of the enduring popularity of samplers today is partly thanks to online genealogy websites. It is now easier than ever to connect yourself with the past. The lovely thing about samplers is that they contain the name and often location of the maker. These two pieces of information, when typed into a genealogy website, can connect you personally with the young lady who made the piece. From there, you may be able to determine who her teacher was, who her classmates were, what her family was like, and so forth. You can then begin to identify certain regional motifs taught by various school mistresses and appreciate the intricacies of design and differing skill levels among the students.’

Circa 1835 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania needlework memorial embroidery of a young woman mourning over urn mounted on a plinth, signed “Work’d by Catherine Hall”, stitched top, “To my dear Farther Benjamin Hall who died in Pittsburgh, Pa July 1835,” silk, paint, cotton and wool on linen; later gilt composite frame, 16” x 13½” (sight). Est. $600-$900, sold for $550 at an auction held March 24, 2018 by Brunk Auctions.

“Visualizing a classroom, perhaps not unlike the one you were taught in, brings to mind these girls laboring over their work, trading stories, and being rewarded by their teacher. Making a personal connection like this can make a huge difference in how you engage with, enjoy, and value historic artifacts. Across generations and centuries, the common thread of human experience endures.”

Pennsylvania has produced an abundance of samplers, partly perhaps due to its rich early history as America’s melting pot. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the world’s second-largest English-speaking city. Quakers, Moravians, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Mennonites all populated the state in the early 18th century, following William Penn’s dream of religious freedom. With each culture came new and different histories and traditions of needlework and embroidery. Quakers and Moravians both placed value in women’s education and as a result, Pennsylvania was one of the first colonies with schools for girls.

Rare Southeastern Pennsylvania Needlework Cotton Apron. Cross-stitch signature “I.S 1800”. Pictured in Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society, Vol. 22/1988/1, page 38. 25-1/2″l. x 31-3/4″w. Framed, 31-1/2″ x 37″ overall. Condition: Good with minor wear and stains. Est. $300-$500, sold for $950 at an auction held Dec. 3, 2016 by Conestoga Auction Company.

As for the demand for samplers and other expressions of Pennsylvania needlework, Will Kimbrough said the market for top-quality, fresh-to-the-market examples in excellent condition will continue to escalate over the next five years. “Additionally,” he added, “identified examples connected with specific schools and regions will continue to perform well. As is true with other segments of the market, more typical, less visually interesting pieces, and anything with distracting condition problems, will continue to decline in value.”

Kaitlyn Julian said, “With all the great scholarship on the subject, I believe that a continued interest in collecting samplers is here to stay. I don’t believe the market is as strong as it was twenty years ago, but interest remains high and the market now presents a chance for young collectors to build their own collection at reasonable prices. In order to maintain a strong market, it is crucial to establish an interest with the younger generations.”

Pennsylvania wool needlework, mid-19th century, 19½ x 13½” in a period frame. Some toning and very minor thread loss. Est. $500-$1,000, sold for $325 at an auction held Oct. 27, 2012 by Pook & Pook, Inc.

She added, “As always with antiques, exceptional examples will continue to achieve exceptional prices. Samplers that consistently achieve high prices on the auction block include those which are easy to read, brightly colored and without stains or fading. Easy to read samplers with visual interest and intricately embroidered borders always catch the eye of collectors, especially those with balanced compositions and regional motifs. My favorite samplers include those with spectacularly detailed brick houses, boasting rows and rows of windows, a mansard roof, and a dog running in the front yard. Especially impressive are those which are marked with the age of the maker, including some as young as five or six.”

Atomic Age furnishings exude optimistic energy

NEW YORK – Through the Atomic Age, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, developing nuclear power, atomic science and the space race inspired out-of-this-world interior design. Its stylized, instantly recognizable cosmic shapes and motifs endowed utilitarian objects, large and small, with bursts of futuristic, optimistic, peacetime energy.

Millions of kitchens, against a background of steel cabinets and Formica countertops, boasted bright walls, ceramic coffee mugs and soap dispensers patterned with whizzing rockets or dynamic galaxy decorative touches. Others, inspired by structure of the atom, depicted orbiting atomic particles.

Sunbeam atomic clock with circular pink and gold glass face, marked, 16in. diameter. Realized $100 + buyer’s premium in 2005. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Drinking glasses, serving plates and Melamine dinnerware often featured colorful star bursts. Delicate, organic, spidery plant forms and amoeba-like free forms, reflecting strides in x-ray and microscope technologies, adorned place mats and table cloths. Boomerangs, another popular Atom Age motif, not only mirrored magnified bacteria. Used as stylized arrows, they symbolized directional energy fields, capturing movement.

1950s Modern upholstered screen covered with 1950s fabric printed with boomerangs and rectangles in red, blue-green and chartreuse on light gray ground, with steel legs. In as-found condition (stains and tear to fabric). 65¾in. x 58½in. Realized $125 + buyer’s premium in 2004. Image courtesy of Rago Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bold, aluminum, atomic-inspired lamps graced millions of homes across the country. Desk and ceiling “flying saucers,” which feature gently rounded metal domed shades, were not only popular, but easy on the eye. So were minimalistic floor models, perched precariously on spindly gooseneck, tripod or “cricket” brass legs. Pole tension lamps, whose adjustable cone-shaped shades created focused spots of light, were also great favorites.

Pierre Guariche brass and enameled metal table lamp with adjustable shade, 20in. x 10½in. Realized $1,100 + buyer’s premium in 2006. Image courtesy Rago Modern Auctions, LLP and LiveAuctioneers

In contrast, airy, light-hearted, “bubble” table and ceiling lamps offered warm, soft, diffuse – yet abundant – radiance. George Nelson, for example, coaxed their malleable steel-wire frames and translucent white plastic or sprayed resin into fanciful pear, globe, cigar and elliptical shapes. Gino Sarfatti designed bubble pendant lamps featuring transparent, richly textured, handcrafted Murano glass globes. Angelo Lelli created nickel-plated brass and steel ceiling lights whose radiating branches, tipped with frosted glass spheres, look, for all the world, like planets in orbit.

Angelo Lelli, Arredoluce Stella Chandelier, nickel-plated brass and steel, frosted glass, signed with manufacturer’s label, ‘Made in Italy Arredoluce Monza,’ circa 1950, 51in. diameter, 8½in. high. Realized $19, 000 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Three years after Russia’s earth-shattering launch of the Sputnik space satellite, the Sputnik chandelier reached the market. This opulent starburst creation, featuring central spheres with multiple radiating prongs fitted with glowing light fittings, was a favored décor of the day. So was the Sputnik-like dandelion sphere, whose myriad glass blossoms or spiked pinpoints of light evoke their namesake. These high-end, Atomic Age decorative statements were sculptures by day, supernovas by night.

Atomic-inspired table and wall clocks also made dramatic decorative statements. Though all essentially performed the same function, they differed in shape and style. Some bear flat conventional flat faces bright with random atomic motifs. Some, bearing numerous, slender, outstretched arms radiating from round, conventional, central clockworks, resemble cheery sunflowers or sunbursts. Ball wall clocks, which feature circular centers spiked by slender shafts tipped with brilliantly hued balls, indicate time by position rather than by number. Rare models, like George Nelson’s ovoid “Eyeball,” which resembles its name and his striking wooden, watermelon-shaped ones, are particularly desirable.

Bubble Lamp, George Nelson (1908–1986) for Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., 1960s
sprayed resin, steel, clear label, 18in. diameter x 16in. high. Realized $250 in 2015. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

During this era, designers also produced Atomic-Age inspired furniture. Some pieces, like Adrian Pearsall’s sculptured Gondola sofa, along with scores of anonymously designed coffee tables enhancing middle class living rooms, resemble boomerangs.

Others, rather than embodying atomic motifs, utilize exciting, postwar, state-of-the-art materials. Nelson’s whimsical Marshmallow sofa, for example, features comfy cushions “floating” atop tubular steel frames. Harry Bertoia’s nature-inspired, sculptural Diamond, Butterfly and Bird chairs are wrought from bent, welded, transparent steel wire grids.

Charles and Ray Eames, Side chairs, circa 1960, enameled steel wire, Naugahyde, model no. DKX-1, Herman Miller, retains manufacturer’s label. Realized $1,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek, curvy, stools, rockers and tables are fashioned from pliable plywood. These, as well as their celebrated, molded, Fiberglas chairs, realized in shades from neutral to vibrant, ultramodern orange, yellow and blues, have remained popular for decades.

Most Atomic Age pieces at auction, which were acquired from original users, were not only well used, but well loved. Today too, many appreciate their pleasing visual appeal infused with optimistic energy.

Jasper52 interiors sale Aug. 7 steeped in European panache

A substantial and wide-ranging auction titled Artful Interiors: Decorative Art & Furniture will be presented online Wednesday, Aug. 7, by Jasper52. Bidders will discover an array of decorative objects—antique to modern—to enhance their abode.

Pair of new German-made Art Deco-style armchairs in Macassar wood and piano lacquer, upholstered in high-quality gray fabric. Estimate: $7,000-$8,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Getting hooked on folky rugs

NEW YORK – Hooked rugs have been described as the comfort food of antiques with collectors coveting them for their artistic qualities and homespun nature. Rug hooking dates back several centuries and ranges from simple rugs hooked out of fabric scraps by thrifty crafters or elegant designs.

Hooked rugs come in all sorts of designs from abstract and geometric to whimsical and floral. Karen Swager, decorative arts and textile specialist at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., says that elaborate floral wreaths and bouquets, farm scenes, cats and dogs are common motifs in the designs of hooked and sewn rugs.

A rare hooked and shirred floral rug, circa 1860-80, possibly Maine, made $25,000 in March 2010 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Lions became a popular theme with hooked rugs due to the peddler Edward Sands Frost (1843-1894) who created an industry of stenciled rugs patterns,” she says. “There are few examples of people on 19th and early 20th century rugs. The most well-known hooked rugs with people were designed by James and Mercedes Hutchinson in the mid 20th century.”

Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg, presents the 2018-20 exhibition “Folk Art Underfoot: American Hooked Rugs”  surveying the art of hooking and sewing rugs, featuring some 20 hooked and sewn rugs.

“By the early 19th century, sewn rug work was among the special sewing projects a young schoolgirl could create while attending one of the many day or boarding schools that specialized in sampler making, wool embroidery and other female accomplishments,” she said. Jan Whitlock, in her 2012 book American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples, notes that 40 schools advertising rug work had been identified. Several schools as far south as Virginia also included rug work in their curriculum.

This early 20th century ice skating hooked rug sold for $7,000 in January 2019 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among notable areas known for hooked rugs is the distinct style of hooked rug that originated in Waldoboro, Maine, a shipbuilding community originally settled by German immigrants.

“The rugs are characterized by a deep pile that is clipped and sculptured creating a design that stands out from the background,” Smith Ivey said. “The finest Waldoboro rugs were crafted between 1860 and 1880 and were intended as decorative showpieces rather than floor coverings to be walked upon. Today, hooked rugs with raised motifs are referred to as Waldoboro-types, whether they are actually made in Waldoboro or not.”

Hooked rug attributed to Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896), Dixfield, Maine, circa 1850; wool and cotton on linen. Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

The most desirable rugs are ones that showcase the inventiveness and artistry of the maker, Swager says, noting that whimsical designs featuring animals are very sought after. In March 2010, Brunk Auctions sold the collection of prominent collector Tom Gray, including a number of fine hooked and sewn rugs. Among them was a bias shirred rug with a whimsical farm animal scene that hammered at $30,000.

“Some collectors also seek rugs made with a distinct technique. For example, bias shirring, where fabric strips are cut on the bias and stitched to the foundation lengthwise in the center of the strip, is one of the most time consuming and difficult techniques of rug making. This technique also allows for subtle shading and the incorporation of wavy designs that can enhance the artistry of the rug.”

A folk art pictorial hooked rug depicting a portrait of lamb amid geometric designs earned $10,000 in January 2017 at Hyde Park Country Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hyde Park Country Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Smith Ivey explains that designs for early sewn and hooked rugs echo motifs found in other home furnishings including woven rugs and quilts.

“Rug makers found inspiration in published sources as well as in the details of everyday life,” she says. “Houses, birds, floral arrangements, and animal motifs, especially household pets, were the most popular designs. During this period, house cats were a major family pet and the most popular design for hooked rugs. Geometric patterns, which are the easiest designs to draw and produce in a rug, are also common.”

She said four hooked rugs created by Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896) in Dixfield, Maine, between 1850 to 1860 are some of the best and most striking forms of hooked rug work for a number of reasons.

“First, it is rare to find a rug with a known maker. Four hooked rugs attributed to Lucy Barnard feature a large white house on a hill with attached outbuildings,” she said. “Her rugs display an unusual sophisticated awareness of perspective through the use of oversized flowers in the foreground and two-sided buildings. Landscapes such as these require greater skill and appear less frequently than floral and geometric patterns.”

Hooked rug, New England, 1875-1925, wool and cotton on burlap (jute). Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

Highly collectible today are Grenfell hooked mats, which became a cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. William Grenfell established “the industrial” to help provide a source of income for the local women, Swager says. “Designs for the mats were inspired by regional scenes and animals. Polar bears, owls and winter landscapes are found on a number of Grenfell mats.”

While the market for hooked rugs has softened a bit in recent years, the best and most artistic examples continue to bring strong prices while the beginning collector still has the opportunity to enter the field at affordable prices.

Some of the attributes that collectors should consider, Smith Ivey says, include:

  • Condition: Does it have its original binding? Are the colors bright or faded?
  • Materials: Is it worked on burlap, which degrades easily and indicates a later date? Is it worked on cotton or linen, which are more stable ground fabrics and indicates an earlier date? Are there mixtures of fibers in the pile that create interesting textures?
  • Design: Is the design original to the maker, and if so, is it an important expression of American imagination and ingenuity? Is the pattern derived from a published design? Did the maker customize the publish pattern to express some of her personality?
  • Maker: Is the maker of the rug identified? Does the rug have a known provenance? Is it dated or signed in any way?
  • Technique: Is it hooked or is it an example of a sewn rug, such as yarn-sewn, bias shirred; chenille shirred, or patch? Are different hues of one color used to create a shading effect?

Decorative arts auction June 19 has emphasis on silver

Beautiful decorative art – with an emphasis on sterling silver – worthy of a well-appointed home are offered in a Jasper52 online auction that will be conducted Wednesday, June 19. Going up for bid early in the 129-lot auction is an eight-piece Art Deco sterling silver tea set by Christofle/Cardeilhac of France.

Christofle/Cardeilhac eight-piece Art Deco sterling silver tea set. Estimate: $14,000-$17,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

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.

20th century lighting auction April 17 has a French accent

Best-selling author Beth Macy has been quoted: “You just keep shining a light and hoping people will start to pay attention.” People will have no trouble paying attention to the collection of 20th century French lighting being offered in a Jasper52 online auction on Wednesday, April 17. Stunningly beautiful chandeliers, sconces, and table and floor lamps are included in the 107-lot auction.

French Art Deco chandelier Le Verre Francais, Daum, Muller Sabino, 56in. high, 30in. deep. rewired with U.S. socket. Estimate: $3,500-$4,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Miami Beach Antique Show brings auction to Jasper52 March 30

On March 30, Jasper52 will present an auction loaded with choice items exclusively from the prestigious Miami Beach Antique Show. From iconic Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra jewelry to an exquisite museum-quality clock and garniture set, this special online auction features only the best in jewelry, watches, decorative art and fine art.

Patek Philippe women’s 18K rose gold and diamond Twenty~4 quartz wristwatch, ref. 4908/11R. Estimate $23,000-$28,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.