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Cloisonné and its enameled cousins

It may only be glass dust baked into colorful decoration today, but cloisonné art defined royalty from its earliest period some 3,000 years ago. Today, that royal privilege is a common everyday auction favorite.

Around the third century B.C., the art of cloisonné featured gems and multicolored stones that were ground to perfectly to fit within thick, solid gold, wire soldered to a base metal and separated into compartments (cloisons) to complete a design, usually religious in nature. With the use of gems, only the wealthiest, mostly royal households, could commission these intricate and delicate works of expressive art.

This pair of late 19th century Meiji cloisonné vases shows the detail enamel work of land and waterscapes featuring colorful floral and geometric design throughout and a collector favorite in style and design that sold for $850 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Slowly over time, the use of cut precious gems and stones to create cloisonné was eventually substituted with powdered or fragments of clear or opaque glass fired onto metal at high temperature becoming routine sometime around 14th century Europe. This method still shone like the earlier cut stones but made cloisonné art more accessible especially as decorative household items or worn as jewelry.

However, while cloisonné is enameling, not all enameling is cloisonné. While the use of powdered glass is constant, the manner that it is artistically applied differs.

Cloisonné

In the simplest way to describe it, the art of cloisonné is arranging thin metal walls along a pattern etched onto a metal base, usually gold. These individual cells, called cloisons, are then filled with powdered glass, either colored or clear, to the top of the thin metal walls and fired at high temperature to form a vitreous glaze known as hardened enamel. Once cooled, the surface is brushed with soft cloth creating a mirrored, glossy surface that brings out a striking colorful portrait or artistic pattern. By the 12th century, Western Europe had moved on from this technique in favor of a more detailed and creative style called champlevé.

Unlike cloisonné that uses thin wires to separate colors, patterns in champlevé are incised directly into a heavier metal such as copper and only the incision is filled with enamel and fired like this 19th century Russian silver box that sold for $600 (without buyer’s premium) in 2012. 
Image courtesy of Charles A. Whitaker Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Champlevé

While cloisonné is achieved by inserting thin metal walls from which the design is created, the art of champlevé instead carves out the design directly onto a thicker metal surface, usually copper or other hard metals. The powdered glass is inserted into the carved metal up to the top of the metal surface and fired at high temperature to create a detailed pattern or decorative design. Even more artistic refinement was achieved through the process known as basse-taille.

Basse-taille

It would be difficult to distinguish champlevé from basse-taille, (meaning ‘low cut’) without a closer examination. Both rely on etching a complete pattern or design directly onto a hard metal surface with enamel filling in the carved pattern and fired at a high temperature. The difference between the two techniques, though, is that while champlevé has only one thickness of carving, basse-taille has at least one other carving that is below the thickness of the first. Using clear or translucent colored enamel interchangeably, the different layers produce a more three-dimensional look and feel to the final design, especially when used on a gold or silver base. The total effect of color, brightness and design was a skill that few could master and fell out of favor after the Renaissance.

In this Chinese example of plique-a-jour bowl the process starts out similar to cloisonné, but the metal base is removed to create a visually stunning stained glass effect that Tiffany was famous for. Image courtesy of Aspire Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Plique-à-jour

Up to now, creating an enameled work of art required the process to be on a metal base. However, in 14th century France and Italy, the metal base was no longer found necessary. The process of plique-à-jour (meaning ‘light of day’) was more akin to stained glass in that metal strips form a pattern on a metal base, the glass powder is added to create the pattern, then the underlying metal base is removed. But instead of cut glass pieces to form a pattern like stained glass, the colored enamel allows light to shine through. The foremost artists of plique-à-jour enameling were Rene Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Peter Carl Faberge.

What Collectors Look For

There are other artistic forms of enameling such as niello (a black inlay on gold and silver), guilloché (repetitive patterns), gripoix (poured glass), taille d’épargne (black enamel tracing), en résille (enamel on rock crystal or glass) and damascening (inlay similar to the look of damask silk) each with a special artistic use of fired ground opaque, opalescent and transparent glass. Most have their origins in early history such as niello while others, like guilloché, can now be created mechanically.

While other examples of enamel are colorful and opalescent, niello is a dark inlay made from a mixture of sulphur, copper, silver and lead. When added to a base of gold and silver produces a dramatic contrast of light and dark similar to this 1915 Longines rose gold and silver pocket watch that sold for $250 + the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Enameling, though, has been featured throughout the ancient world from Arabia to Europe usually as a regional artistic expression and mostly as a decorative display on cups, saucers, vases, religious objects, small boxes, personal jewelry, tableware and even decorative clocks. But there are differences to look for.

Chinese cloisonné, for example, has a smoother finish around the rims while Japanese cloisonné has more of a mottled feel like an orange peel. Tap the bottom. If it is not metallic (usually copper) then it isn’t authentic cloisonné and it is the Japanese cloisonné from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that are prized at auction for their sophistication and deep color.

The difference in style from cloisonné to champlevé and basse taille is another example. Cloisonné usually covers the entire metal surface while the others do not. Yet, champlevé and basse taille are somewhat similar until viewed closely to see the differences in the height of the cuts made into the metal itself; champlevé usually has only one level while basse taille has more.

Yet, with all the differences in style and technique of enameling whether vintage or historic, it is a matter of personal preference that will determine what collectors prize the most.

And while there is much to learn from each technique, once the differences are made clear, identifying each style becomes a most satisfying collecting experience filled with color, light and thousands of years of history.

Finally

Enameling in any form is an ancient artistic process originally intended as a visible display of wealth and sophistication for early royalty. Whether cloisonné, champlevé or any other variations of sleek, colorful and vintage enamelware will make any collector look and feel like royalty, too.

Tureens offer a feast of artistry

NEW YORK – Humans have eaten soup for thousands of years but have served them from tureens for only a few hundred. Dinnerware designers elevated the large covered serving bowl into the form dubbed the tureen in the early 18th century and quickly understood its potential as an artistic showpiece. Hosting a dinner party is known as entertaining, after all, and serving soup from a vessel festooned with maidens, cherubs, cornucopias, garlands, painted landscape scenes and other expensive, labor-intensive frippery that enchants and holds the eye certainly counts as entertaining.

It’s not clear who invented the tureen, or where, but it probably emerged from France, a nation that loves its soups. The origin of the word has not been pinned down, but it could come from “terrine,” a covered container used for making the dish of the same name.

Tureens debuted in an era when soup was traditionally the first course on a menu. Ladling that soup from a fabulous-looking tureen set the tone for the evening: This is an elegant experience, and you and a select few others have been invited to share it. As dinner parties evolved, it became standard for hosts to offer two contrasting soups—for example, a dark-colored, heavy game meat soup as well as a lighter, more broth-like one. That meant dinner party hosts had to own at least two tureens, doubling the opportunities to dazzle their guests and show off their wealth.

Chinese export goose tureen. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Some tureens were ornamented with animals, such as ducks, rabbits or deer. The appearance of a bird or beast on the outside might signal what food is inside, but not always. Freeman’s sold a circa 1760s Qianlong period Chinese export porcelain tureen shaped like a goose, but the odds are it never held a soup or other dish made from the bird. In all likelihood, it was meant purely as eye candy. Standing just over a foot high, it’s exquisitely painted and sculpted. The unknown artisans went to the trouble of articulating the goose’s wingtips and lifting them away from its body, and they explicitly modeled its tucked-in feet rather than painting them on or leaving them out entirely.

People love figurative tureens now as much as they did in the 18th century. Freeman’s sold the porcelain goose, which would have been a specialty item when new, for $50,000. “Novelty forms are always very popular because not as many are available,” says Ben Farina, head of Asian arts at Freeman’s. “For collectors, they’re not only rare forms, but a bit of sculpture. When they’re not being used, they can sit on a sideboard as decoration.”

The Chinese export porcelain goose tureen Freeman’s offered was single, but other examples dating to the same period have come with identical mates. Farina cannot confirm whether the goose once had a gander. “It’s not impossible. It would make some sense if it was a large service, but I don’t want to say,” he said. “Sometimes you do see pairs together. Whether they started life together is another question.”

Minton majolica bunny tureen. Image courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Farina also suggested that animal-form tureens might recall the medieval practice of carrying whole roasted birds or wild boar into a dining hall to the delight of the guests. “I think these tureens were entertaining pieces, showpieces carried into the hall in front of the diners,” he says.

The talented staff at Minton, an English majolica producer active during Victorian times, created several pieces they called tureens, though the vessels don’t seem to be designed to hold soup. One of Minton’s most beloved pieces, a game tureen decorated with depictions of the heads of rabbits and ducks, has earned the nickname “the Bunny tureen.”

Minton majolica fish tureen. Image courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Michael Strawser of Strawser Auction Group has handled five Bunny tureens in the last 30 years and auctioned one dating to 1878 for $22,000. Strawser also sold an equally rare Minton fish tureen, featuring a clever lemon-shaped handle, from 1876 for $15,500.

Minton certainly recognized how the tureen form could make a superlative canvas for its artisans. “Minton is famous for the crispness of the painting,” Strawser says. “With other companies, you see the painting run from one section to another. Here, there’s a lot of extra detail, such as showing the actual hair on the rabbits.”

When Jean Puiforcat tackled the tureen, he stripped it down while keeping its opulence. The fourth-generation French silversmith knew that an abundance of decorative flourishes on a piece of silver holloware could conceal any number of flaws. His circa 1925 silver tureen and stand is spectacular in its simplicity. He and his clients lived in the time of Art Deco, and he streamlined the serving piece accordingly. The luxury is in the quality of the craftsmanship—Puiforcat didn’t need to hide his silversmithing mistakes, because he didn’t make any—and in accents fashioned from semiprecious stones.

Puiforcat silver tureen and stand. Image courtesy of Millea Bros. and LiveAuctioneers

“This is a really fine example of what he’s known for. It’s iconic Art Deco, and it’s as much a sculptural object as a functional one,” says David Halpern of Millea Bros, speaking of the 1925 Puiforcat tureen and stand that the auction house sold for $35,000 in 2016. “It’s clean, but it’s not so reductionist that it doesn’t have intricacy to it.”

Halpern affirms that the fact of its being a tureen helped push the bidding to almost twice the high estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. “What part of a table service is going to be this large and complex?” he asks. “Tureens are very suited to being monumental and important.”

While he can’t confirm whether the winner of the Puiforcat tureen has since used it to serve guests, Halpern says people continue to buy and use tureens, even if they might not use them in precisely the same ways as past generations did: “I think they buy them because they’re beautiful, and they think, “Won’t it be fun to trot out at a dinner party?’ People are going to want to get together and socialize. They want to make a point of saying ‘We are together and we are celebrating.’”

Textile auction Feb. 18 features many Grenfell mats

Jasper52’s online auction of American quilts and textiles on Thursday, Feb. 18, features an amazing collection of nearly 90 vintage quilts as well as 42 handmade Grenfell mats from eastern Canada.

Grenfell mat or rug, 1930s, cotton and silk, 32½ x 42in. Estimate $5,500-$7,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Colorful decorative art offered in online auction Jan. 20

Jasper52 will conduct another Exquisite Decorative Art auction on Wednesday, Jan. 20. More than 200 lots of high-quality glass, metalware, figurines, pottery and porcelain objects will be offered.

Blown glass vase, mid-century modern, 2.6in high x 10in in diameter. Estimate: $120-
$150. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 auction heavy into French sterling silver Jan. 13

French sterling silver abounds in an Exquisite Decorative Arts online auction that Jasper52 will conduct on Wednesday, Jan. 13. Two magnificent Louis XVI-style tea/coffee sets are offered as well as several large sets of flatware.

Louis XVI sterling silver tea/coffee set by Puiforcat, eight pieces, 1850-1899. Reserve: $24,549; estimate: $29,000-$35,000.

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Carousels: Carved animals in motion

NEW YORK – Who, as a child, hasn’t whirled merrily like a top? Or spun a playground merry-go-round and hopped onto it for a thrilling ride? Carousels, which feature creatively-shaped mounts on rotating circular platforms, are the ultimate spinning amusement for fun-seekers of all ages.

Surprisingly, they originated in medieval times, when mounted knights, to hone their skills, tossed balls to one another while galloping in circles. Indeed, the word carousel originates from Italian and Spanish terms for “little battle.”

By Elizabethan times, circling jousters speared small, suspended rings. Within a century, similar ring-tilt carousels sprang up at fairgrounds across Europe. Wooden horses, suspended from central canopies, replaced riders. These popular amusements, powered by ponies or rope-pulling youngsters, however, had no platforms. So as they gained speed, the horses pushed outward centrifugally, flying free.

Their wooden stick-legs, heads and bodies, adorned with rabbit-skin manes and tails, were crude, wrote George Sanger in Seventy Years a Showman. But bright-white and “plentifully dotted with red and blue spots,” they thrilled the crowds.

Rare, county fair-style carousel frog, park paint, 40 x 42 inces, American, circa 1914, Herschell Spillman. Realized $6,500 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

By the mid-19th century, newer models, featuring carved riding horses fixed to round platforms suspended from central poles, replaced flying-horses. Like earlier ones, however, these were pulled by man or beast.

When the first steam-driven carousel appeared a decade later, its impact was profound. A Halifax Courier journalist described its … “huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.”

Soon afterwards, Frederick Savage, an enterprising British engineer, incorporated farm machinery into fairground rides — including carousels. According to Victorian fairground manufacturer Frederick Savage, The Platform Galloper, his best-loved carousel, “imparted a vigorous rocking motion to the mounted horses via a series of eccentrics under the platform.” Later models featured platform slides — which swang poled-mounts concentrically as carousels gained speed — as well as gears and off-set cranks, which created up-and-down “galloping.”

Eventually, Savage carousels were also enhanced by “vivid scenic painting, exuberant scrollwork, carved Baroque dream images, plush upholstery, engraved mirrors, barley-sugar brasswork, gaudy hues and gilt. The emphasis was on unashamed opulence.” As traditional British trading fairs gave way to public performances and amusements, Savage carousels thrilled crowds far and wide. They were also exported around the world.

French carousel carvers, including Gustav Bayol and Limonaire Frères, fashioned charming figures, like prancing donkeys, long-eared pigs, cockerels, and cows with brass horns. German carvers usually created gentle-faced, prancing horses, while others fashioned whimsical pull, wind-up, or wind-driven toy carousels.

Philadelphia-style, outer row stander carousel horse, provenance Great Escape Fun Park, Lake George, New York, 58 x 62 inches, Gustav Dentzel. Realized $10,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant, introduced carousels to America in the mid-1800s. Most of his large, decorative, Philadelphia-style machines featured elegant, realistically carved horses, along with menageries of rabbits, roosters, bears, and other beasts. Carvers, including E. Joy Morris, D. C. Muller & Bro., and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, created similar creatures.

Glamorous Coney Island-style carousels, fitted with bright lights and glittering mirrors, also featured flamboyant horses adorned with multifaceted jewels and gilded trappings. Lavish Looff, Carmel, and Stein & Goldstein equine creations are especially appealing.

Prolific North Tonawanda, New York carvers, like C.W. Parker, Charles Dare, and Herschell Spillman, created small, easily transportable county fair -style carousel animals for the seasonal Midwest county fair circuit. Their elegant though substantial pieces generally inhabited permanent amusement park carousels.

Whatever their style, American carousels usually featured three rows of mounted animals. Visible, outer rows usually boasted grand, colorful stationary horses with lavish, finely carved manes, gilded trappings, and decorative images on their flanks. Inner rows, in addition to accommodating ornately carved chariots and smaller animal mounts, featured “ galloping” poled horses in prancing (front legs up) or jumping (all legs up) positions.

Until the Great Depression, thousands of American fairs, towns, cities, and amusement parks hosted carousels. Afterward, many were closed, destroyed, or abandoned. While some reopened as the economy improved, they were overshadowed by more thrilling rides and were no longer main attractions. Today, some 400 are believed to exist.

Fiberglass reined elephant featuring iron hand/foot rests, 48 x 26 x 45 inches. Realized $700 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Due to extensive use and exposure to the elements, most carousel mounts were repaired and repainted every few years. Since those in original or near-original condition are very rare, those that have been restored — stripped to their natural wood, repainted with original colors, or featuring brighter “park paint” hues — are the ones most likely to reach the collector marketplace.

For those who dream of owning an entire carousel, the price is steep. In 2012, RM Sotheby’s auctioned a huge, extraordinarily ornate, custom-built example featuring a menagerie of 42 historically accurate, hand-carved animals and two chariots, along with a Wurlitzer 153 Band Organ and 10 music rolls. It realized over one million dollars.

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Curtis Jeré skiers go for the gold in online auction Dec. 29

Jasper52 will conduct an Exquisite Decorative Arts online auction on Tuesday, Dec. 29. The auction consists of well over 400 lots of decorative arts to enhance any interior, from art glass to bronze sculptures.

Mid-century Curtis Jeré ski sculptures, bronze on onyx bases, 6 x 7 x 6in. Estimate: $700-$800. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Bronze figures at the fore of Jasper52 auction Dec. 16

Jasper52 will conduct an Exquisite Decorative Arts online auction on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The auction consists of well over 700 lots of decorative arts to enhance any interior, from art glass to bronze sculptures.

France figural gilded-bronze mantel clock, 19th century. Estimate $47,250-$67,500

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 showcases Herend porcelain Nov. 24

Jasper52’s latest Exquisite Decorative Arts online auction on Tuesday, Nov. 24, is composed of a diverse array of antique to modern objects. Beautiful porcelain and glass vases, impressive dinnerware and lovely bronze sculptures are among the unique treasures in this 443-lot sale.

Herend porcelain, PiVoine Imperiale Chinese bronze-style vase, made in Hungary, 2006, limited edition, 8.3in high. Estimate: $1,200-$1,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 showcases mid-century designs Nov. 18

Spectacular mid-century designs for the home and pop art will go up for bid in a Jasper52 online auction on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Clean lines, organic contours and stylish functionality are all offered in this specially curated sale devoted to the sleek mid-century modern style.

Rabbit cocktail table by Studio Juju for Living Divani, 2012, powder-coated steel, 43 x 49 x 12in. Estimate: $900-$1,100. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.