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Gold, gold and more gold emerges from Jasper52 vault, May 18

A Cartier 18K gold and sapphire lion brooch, a Van Cleef & Arpels Ludo 18K gold and diamond link bracelet, and a large set of fan-shaped 18K gold and diamond earrings by Verdura should claim top lot status at Jasper52’s Designer Jewelry and Watches sale, which will take place on Wednesday, May 18, at 8 pm Eastern time.

Cartier 18K gold and sapphire lion brooch, est. $28,962-$31,595

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Silver or Gold? With vermeil, you get both

A pair of vermeil silver Champagne coolers by English silversmith Paul Storr sold for €32,000 (approximately $33,675) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018. Image courtesy of Colasanti Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

Gold is easy to work with on its own – just heat it and form it as desired. It is heavy and luxurious, but because of its price, it isn’t always practical. A solution since ancient times has been to apply gold over other metals, like silver, a time-honored choice. But early methods of applying gold to silver to create vermeil (pronounced vehr-may), also known as silver-gilt, were sometimes difficult and dangerous. 

The Incas of South America married their Sun God of gold and Mother Moon of silver in their religious artifacts through what’s known as a depletion-gilding technique, a process that employs acids, salts and heat to bind the gold to the silver. European artisans came up with a fire-gilding process by which an amalgam of gold and mercury is heated to slowly dissolve the mercury until the gold chemically binds to the outer surface to produce ormolu. This practice was finally outlawed around 1830 due to its seriously harmful effects on the health of the metalsmiths.

A French silver-gilt breakfast set once owned by August Ludwig Viktor, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, achieved NT$1,700,000 (about $58,000) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of Yu Jen Taipei and LiveAuctioneers

French artisans discovered electrolysis in the late 18th century, a far-safer process that binds gold to silver by passing electric currents through the metals. Electrolysis is now the standard technique for creating works of vermeil.

It should be said that vermeil is not interchangeable with pieces that are gold filled or gold plated. The rules for the manufacture of the latter two are looser. Gold-filled pieces feature a layer of gold electroplated onto an alloy of copper, brass or other base metal that has no less than 5% of its total weight in gold, while gold-plated works have less than 1% of their total weight in gold over alloy. No specific karat-weight of gold is regulated for either type, although each can be identified by a hallmark such as GP for gold plated and GF for gold filled.

A circa-1809 French Empire silver-gilt platter and cover made for Prince Camillo Borghese and Pauline Borghese (nee Bonaparte) achieved £34,000 (about $42,500) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Vermeil, in contrast, always has a base of fine or sterling silver – not an alloy. American government regulations require the layer of gold to comprise no less than 2.5 microns, which is about five times thicker than that used in gold plating. Also, the gold overlay can be no less than 10K in weight. With its combination of both gold and silver, vermeil is classified as demi-fine jewelry. It is by far the most coveted of the three gold-layered variations at auction.

As pointed out earlier, vermeil is created by electroplating pure gold onto a solid silver surface, but it need not be done when a piece is first made. A work of silver can be elevated to vermeil at any time. 

A circa-1950 decorative basket by Cartier featuring silver gilt bands, enameled strawberries and white enamel flowers achieved $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Any object made from gold will have a hallmark declaring its full karat weight, but items of vermeil, which have a layer of gold over silver, are not usually hallmarked for their gold content. They should sport a hallmark of .925 for sterling silver or .999 for fine silver to identify the purity of the base silver alloy. 

A circa-1900 sterling silver-gilt vermeil centerpiece bowl by Marcus & Co., sold for S1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

Telling the difference between a gold object and one that was originally cast as vermeil is straightforward but involves multiple steps, starting with checking for discoloration, general wear or tarnish. Pieces that have a history should show wear in logical places. If something appears too new for its age, the layer of gold you see was almost certainly added after its completion.

A 54-piece vermeil dessert service realized $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Leighton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Just feeling the weight of an item can help determine if it is gold or vermeil. The atomic weight of silver is 47 and the atomic weight of gold is 79, a difference in weight of about 41%. Vermeil jewelry, teacups, clocks, flatware and even royal crowns will feel lighter than their solid-gold counterparts and a bit heavier than those made from an alloy of brass and copper. 

A case in point is the 17th-century St. Edward’s Crown that Queen Elizabeth II wore at her coronation in 1953. Composed of solid 22K gold and more than 440 precious gems, it weighs nearly five pounds, a challenge for anyone to manage, whether high-born or not. 

“It weighs a tonne,” Her Majesty once told an interviewer. 

An openwork vermeil and diamond bangle bracelet earned $550 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2016. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Magnets are good tools to have at hand when testing objects of vermeil. 

Magnets will not interact with gold, silver, brass or copper, but they will stick to anything that contains enough nickel, iron or steel. If the piece comprises anything except gold over silver, it’s not vermeil. 

Most vermeil items appear at auction in the form of jewelry and personal accessories, but the metallurgical technique has been used to produce other objects as well, both functional and fanciful. Teasets, mantel clocks, candlesticks, presentation bowls, serving trays and Russian icons adorned with vermeil are seldom bypassed at auction.

This Russian icon, chased and embossed with vermeil over a wood panel, sold for €1,500 (about $1,600) in November 2020. Image courtesy of Hargesheimer Kunstauktionen Dusseldorf and LiveAuctioneers

The White House has a Vermeil Room on its ground floor that showcases one of the largest collections of vermeil pieces ever assembled. Dedicated to the first ladies, the collection contains about 1,000 examples of flatware, tableware, chalices, tureens and a wine cooler donated to the Eisenhower administration in 1956 by socialite Margaret Thompson Biddle.

According to the White House Historical Association, the collection includes 18th-century vermeil in the English Regency style by Paul Storr, French Empire-style pieces by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, and examples by Philip Rundell, a London metalsmith. Vermeil designs by all of these revered names remain very much in demand.

A pair of mid-19th-century French silver and vermeil double salts by Maison Odiot, patterned after the original model by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, earned $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers

Contemporary artisans such as Jacquie Aiche, Alfred Phillippe, Dina Mackney and Kendra Scott create vermeil jewelry in vintage and classical designs to suit any event, even a reception at the White House Vermeil Room.

A 20th-century sterling silver vermeil desk clock with a Breguet movement sold for $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2016. Image courtesy of Kodner Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Owning vermeil, be it a centuries-old decorative object by a renowned artisan or a head-turning piece of jewelry finished last week, can make economic sense. If you don’t care to consider pure 24K gold coins, bars, bullion or jewelry part of your investment strategy, vermeil might be a sensible option.

Golden Opportunities in Bars and Ingots

An example of gold bullion that was formed into a large rectangular ingot of one 24K gold kilo (2.2 pounds) sold for $105,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Tyler Louis Jewelry and LiveAuctioneers

The enduring passion for gold is so strong and obvious, it almost defies explanation. Most of us are content to possess gold in the form of coins, medals or jewelry, but those are not the only available options, like gold bars and ingots, or oblong blocks. These particular forms of gold were intended as a functional, no-frills way to quantify, store and transport the precious metal. But the shiny, heavy yellow rectangles prove enchanting nonetheless. Contrary to what some may assume, gold bars and ingos are not restricted to the ultra-secure facilities of banks and governments. They can be purchased quite easily. You just need to know what to look for.

An ingot dating to the early 20th century and traced to the Vulture Mine near Wickenburg, Arizona, achieved $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections and LiveAuctioneers.

The two main choices in this unconventional realm of gold ownership are cast bullion and minted ingots. The first can be purchased through refineries, with cast bars weighing up to 400 ounces, or 27.5 pounds.

The second easily portable, smaller ingots authorized by governments or private mints are more affordable and accessible, and can weigh as little as one gram. Both are acceptable ways to own physical gold, provided they come with the correct documentation.

Historic Gold

For centuries, humans have crudely fashioned gold into bars or ingots to make the metal easier to ship. Vintage and antique gold bars that have survived in their utilitarian form offer collectors something that a gold coin can’t match, and that is heft.

A late Qing Dynasty 32-gram gold ingot with its original Chinese markings sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020, although its intrinsic value was only about $1,663. Image courtesy of Golden Moments Auction and LiveAuctioneers

As with any collectible, the rarity, history, condition and size of the gold ingot will determine its worth beyond the intrinsic value of the gold itself. For example, a 32-gram gold ingot minted in China in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was sold at auction on June 9, 2020 for $2,600, a sum well above its intrinsic value. The Chinese ingot is more than just gold; it is history you can hold in your hand.

Avoiding Fakes

Just about anything for which people will fight to pay top prices makes it a target for counterfeiters, and gold bars and ingots are no exception. A method commonly favored by crooks involves applying a thin layer of gold to a brick made from a less valuable substance usually tungsten. The atomic weight of tungsten (74) is reasonably close to that of gold (79), but its price is not; it sells for 90 percent less. Canny collectors can foil bad actors by weighing a gold bar to at least four decimal places using a troy ounce (31.1034 grams) measurement instead of an avoirdupois ounce (28.35 grams). If the piece under consideration is, in fact, gold and not an alloy, the weight of both it and the troy ounce should match.

Another way to detect a bogus bar is to test it with a magnet. A wide range of metals, tungsten included, are magnetic, but gold is not. If a magnet reacts to a gold bar or ingot, the gold contains a metal alloy that should not be there. 

It is also important for an interested buyer to confirm all of the identifying marks stamped on a gold bar or ingot. These may include the foundry’s name, the year of production, a production number, the assayer’s monogram, the fineness of the gold, serial numbers, and the piece’s official weight. This information should be compared to the certificate of authenticity issued by the refinery, government agency or private mint. 

A 56.65-ounce gold bar bearing a Harris, Marchand & Co. stamp sold for $230,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2017. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

In addition, it is vital to check the company stamps on the gold against official ones to ensure counterfeiters aren’t replicating the stamps themselves. Some private mints have added holograms directly to their ingots during the manufacturing process to provide additional security. These hologram-sporting pieces are known as kinebars, and sometimes the holograms can actually make them more desirable to collectors. The fanciful artistic hologram design on a gold ingot from Argor-Heraeus in Switzerland sold in April 2020 for a hammer price of $2,300, or about 26% above the spot price of gold at the time.

Holograms were introduced as a security feature for small, minted gold ingots, but artistic holograms can add value. A fanciful design on a one-ounce gold bar from Argor-Heraeus in Switzerland realized $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. That sum was about 26% above the spot price of gold at the time. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

While most of the world’s gold is currently mined in China, the United States has produced more gold to date than any other nation, according to a September 2020 BBC report by Justin Harper. Russia, Australia, South Africa, and Peru are other significant sources. Much of the counterfeit gold in circulation comes from countries such as North Korea, which have few to no gold mining operations. Ironically, China is considered a primary source of counterfeit gold bars as well as the genuine article. Of course, industry leaders firmly insist that all gold bars and ingots should only come from reputable dealers or mints.

The Future of Gold 

Of all the gold in existence today, about 201,000 tons, or 75% of it, was mined after 1910. Even more startling is the fact that the world’s entire historic supply of gold would easily fit inside an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Explorer Mel Fisher appeared on television more than once with this petite 18.65-ounce gold bar, which he recovered in 1979 from the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha. It realized $75,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2015. Image courtesy of Guernsey’s and LiveAuctioneers

Our planet has yet to be drained of its gold supply. Another 15 billion pounds of the glittering stuff is believed to be lurking in seawater and along the seabeds of the oceans. The unexplored reaches of Antarctica could contain gold deposits, and the moon is suspected to have seams of the precious metal, too. Your golden opportunity to acquire bars or ingots is all around you, including in online auctions such as those hosted on LiveAuctioneers.

Ormolu: ornamental castings bathed in gold

NEW YORK – From time immemorial, mankind has been mesmerized by the glint of glimmering gold. Ancient Egyptians overlaid royal mummy cases and furniture with thin gold leaf; Chinese artisans adorned pottery, wood, textiles and decorative figurines with gilt designs. Greeks gilded marble statues and architectural elements, while Romans gilded temple and palace walls with this rare, highly malleable metal.

During the Renaissance, Italian craftsmen gilded sword blades and hilts, while masters, like Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (circa 1386-1466), created magnificent, religious-themed, gilt works of art. Ornamental gilt furnishings, however, became fashionable among French royalty and well-to-do centuries later. Their description – gilt-bronze or ormolu (literally “ground-gold”) – reflects their ancient method of production, fire-gilding.

E. Kahn Louis XVI-style desk with ormolu mounts, clock signed ‘Le Roy Paris;’ some mounts marked, circa 1900, 40in high x 40½in wide x 24½in diameter. Realized $55,000 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Dallas Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

After metal decorative items were designed, molded and cast, they were tooled in a variety of textured surfaces. This ensured that finished products would feature lively interplays of light.

In gilding, the final step, craftsmen coated these with an amalgam of ground-gold and mercury. As they were heated over open fires, the mercury vaporized, leaving a thin, dull, pure gold film behind. Subsequent waxing, refiring and burnishing to brightness created pieces that rivaled the richness of solid gold. Yet they were more durable, less costly, and considerably lighter in weight.

Fine, rare George III-style paste-mount ormolu automaton music clock, made for the Chinese market, 32 x 16 x 15in, dial 4½in. Realized $270,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and LiveAuctioneers

Like the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, however, fire-gilders suffered from exposure to the vaporized mercury. Stricken with “gilder’s palsy,” manifested by tremors, jerky gaits, stammering and “mercury madness,” few lived past the age of 40. Although France banned mercury-based artistic techniques in the 1830s, ormolu production continued. In fact, luxurious French ormolu remained the foundation of European decorative art through the early 20th century.

Napoleon III ormolo-mounted marble mantel clock, signed Raingo Freres/Paris, circa 1870, overall dimensions 26 1/8 x 22 7/8 x 8 5/8in. Realized $16,500 + buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Shapiro Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Designers closely followed evolving styles of French interior design. During the flamboyant reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715), master cabinetmakers, fashioning exquisite furniture, for wealthy clientele, replaced functional bronze elements, protecting corners, cabinet keyholes and table feet, with ornamental ormolu-mounts. Since affluent clientele sought to flaunt their wealth, these soon became integral parts of furniture design itself.

Massive, magnificent Imperial Napoleonic Russian ormolu Damascus blade sword, signed, dated, 41in overall, 33in blade. Realized $25,000 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Through the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774), fine furniture ormolu-mounts and fittings, shaped like shells, vines, flowers or leaves, were decorative in their own right. They not only enhanced the general appearance of luxury writing-tables, marquetry-cabinets and bureaus. By accenting borders and edges, they also emphasized their stylish scrolling and serpentine shapes. Craftsmen also created lavish ormolu-mount pieces, like vases, sculptural clocks, wall sconces and firedogs (decorative andirons). Craftsmen, “gilding the lily,” also enhanced extravagant Sevres porcelain with ormolu-mounts.

Pair of monumental gilt bronze mount Sevres urns, ormolu mount base, overall 36½in high. Realized $40,000 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792), decorative ormolu-mounts embellished a wide range of pieces, including cabinet-on-stands, commodes and credenzas. Ormolu-mounts also transformed functional candlesticks, candelabras and chandeliers into fonts of shimmery, lustrous light. Richly ornamented, ormolu-mount clocks were coveted eye-catchers as well. These were so impressive that, to this day, “Louis XVI-style” creations remain the height of elegance.

Toward 1800, fine ormolu-mounts, resembling garlands, tied ribbons, drapery and classical figures, not only embellished worktables, salon-chairs and consoles. They also adorned smaller pieces like vases, jewelry boxes, inkstands, urns and crystal centerpieces. Similarly, architectural mantel clocks gleamed with ormolu-mount sculptures of Cupids, Greek warriors and winged goddesses. Toward mid-century, remarkable ormolu-mount mantel clocks even depicted highly ornate, spired façades of French Gothic cathedrals.

Rare 19th century French bronze clock, Cathedral de Reims, upon ormolu mount step base, 26 x 15½ x 15½in, overall 30 x 18 x 18in. Realized $6,000 + buyer’s premium in 2007. Image courtesy of Kaminski Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Because these creations have little melt-down value, many have survived. Since certain models appeared repeatedly, mounts were fraudulently cast, and regilded older pieces appear as new, however, dating them may prove problematic. Though few are signed, some may be identified by their quality, contemporary descriptions or study of existing models. French ormolu clocks, on the other hand, sometimes bear names of their gilders, casemakers, dial makers and enamelers.