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Pop-up valentines send hearts soaring

NEW YORK – How do I love you? Let me count the ways … A handmade or printed valentine is one popular way to tell your spouse, parent, child or sweetheart of your feelings on Feb. 14. Evolving from religious devotionals and sung/spoken messages of love, sending cards on St. Valentine’s Day has been a tradition for centuries.

One of the earliest known valentines is in the collection of the British Museum in London and was sent by Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown. Published in 1797, the hand-colored card included a handwritten message from its sender that is sad and heartfelt, reiterating past requests for him to please visit her. One wonders how the relationship turned out or if Ms. Mossday found someone else to return her ardor.

A group of antique die-cut, pop-up and articulated cards made $70 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Matthew Bullock Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bullock Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

There are endless variations of valentines, from lace-trimmed Victorian cards to die-cut and pop-up cards. Pop-ups, sometimes referred to as mechanical cards, have been perennially popular and were made in France, England and America to name a few. Clever use of paper, layering, string/wire or use of honeycombed tissue elements make these cards pop up. Their collectibility is largely based on the card’s elegance or whimsy. Most also have a footed base that allows them to stand up for easy display, adding to their appeal. They can easily be stored in books too. At the height of the Victorian era, collecting valentines was like a status symbol and eligible young women would have scrapbooks of valentines they had received that visitors could peruse and admire.

A group of antique pop-up Victorian Valentine die-cut cards took $65 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Matthew Bullock Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bullock Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Before the advent of affordable postage and expanded mail delivery in the 1840s in England and America, two countries where Valentine’s Day is avidly celebrated, sending valentines by mail was expensive and they were often hand-delivered instead. The penny stamp in England, for example, revolutionized the holiday and it’s estimated that some 40,000 cards were sent in 1840, the first year that letters of a modest weight could be mailed for a penny. The holiday soon became big business and today is a billions-dollar industry with cards a large part of that along with flowers, chocolates and gifts.

A group of 13 pop-up Valentines in shadow boxes realized $190 + the buyer’s premium at Litchfield Auctions in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Litchfield Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The origins of Valentine’s Day cards is rife with urban legends and stories going back as far as the Roman Empire. A popular legend is that St. Valentine was in jail for performing weddings of local soldiers, where he is said to have fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter and sent her a love note signed “your Valentine.” This story is entertaining but given the literacy rate at the time and the odds he would be able to get pen and paper while in prison makes it seem a bit unlikely.

Many holidays are lamented for being overly commercial and Valentine’s Day became widely commercialized in the United States starting in the mid-1800s as paper became mass-produced and printing was cheap. Hallmark now rules the greeting card industry here but before the company’s debut in 1911, there were several small stores up and down the East Coast carrying fine valentines, mostly imported from Europe.

A collection of vintage Valentine cards, including pop-ups, sold for $105 + the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Terri Peters & Associates Auction and Estate Marketing. Photo courtesy of Terri Peters & Associates Auction and Estate Marketing and LiveAuctioneers

Esther Howland in Worcester, Mass., was one of these early proponents, importing fancy paper, lace and other items from England to make valentines here. Tapping into her squad of lady friends to work, she ran a profitable cottage industry up until the 1860s making and selling valentines. Companies like Beistle in Shippensburg, Pa., also got into the greeting card business around 1900 and Valentine’s Day was soon a popular addition to the company’s product line.

A dozen pop-up Valentines fetched $60 + the buyer’s premium at Saco River Auction in January 2016. Photo courtesy of Saco River Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The more unique the card, either in sentiment or design, the more collectors will covet that particular example. The most popular depictions in pop-up Valentines are scenes of love or friendship. Commonly seen are fetching young ladies dressed to the nines, often standing in front of a beautiful house or in a garden, or images of couples dancing or being serenaded by Venetian gondoliers. From roses to lilies of the valley, flowers are prolific in valentine cards especially in early 1900s cards. These cards usually feature elegant young women in poofy gowns and frilly hats, often surrounded by flowers. Cherubs and angels are also a popular motif. Whimsical cards often feature people pictured on a bicycle or in a trolley car and the best examples are not rectangular cards but silhouetted and shaped cards cut into the forms of people or objects.

Sentiments vary from shy or cutesy to saccharine with messages like “Valentine, You ‘suit’ me well / from head to toes/ I think you’re swell” on a pop-up card showing a boy and girl enjoying a day at the beach to “I send you this Valentine to say I like you better every day.”

Go green for St. Patrick’s Day

NEW YORK — On March 17, everyone gets to be Irish for one day. Created to mark the traditional death date of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. While it has its roots in religion, today the festival is largely secular and celebratory.

The holiday honors the saint who brought Christianity to Ireland, but it has grown to celebrate the Irish heritage and culture overall. St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during Lent, a period when alcohol historically has been frowned upon, and sometimes it occurs on a Friday, when orthodox Catholics abstain from meat. But often a special dispensation by Catholic dioceses allows drinking and the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

This Irish Belleek 5 o’clock tea set achieved $5,000 in January 2015 at Burchard Galleries Inc. Photo courtesy of Burchard Galleries Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Holiday celebrations are marked by carnival-like parades and festivals and the wearing of the green from shamrock accessories to green clothing. Today, some of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades are not even in Ireland but in the United States and the holiday has become a global phenomenon. The largest parade is in New York City, which has been held continually every year since 1762, more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Given the surge of Irish citizens who settled in New York City, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, this is perhaps not surprising. Today, New York’s parade has over 150,000 participants.

St. Patricks Day is ripe with traditions, myths and legends. One of the most surprising facts was that Saint Patrick was not Irish but born in Norman Britain to a well-to-do Christian family around the year 385 A.D. He was kidnapped at age 16 and forced to tend sheep in Ireland for seven years. According to the lore, he became highly religious during this time and even after he returned home, he felt a calling to return to Ireland and convert people to Christianity.

A rare Vichy “Paddy and the Pig” mechanical bank sold for $9,000 in September 2018 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

St. Patrick’s feast day became a celebration for Irish people in Europe by about the 9th to 10th centuries. It was officially added to the liturgical calendar in the early 1600s and became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It wasn’t until 1903, however, that St. Patrick’s Day was named an official public holiday in Ireland, largely due to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act that year.

Customs associated with the holiday include “drowning the shamrock.” According to the Good Food Ireland website, the shamrock, which comes from the Gaelic word, “seamrog” (summer plant), is actually a common weed but was adopted as a national symbol of Ireland. Both its three-leaf and rarer four-leaf shamrock version are said to represent the “luck of the Irish.”

Candy containers are popular holiday collectibles. This composition St. Patrick’s Day figure smoking a pipe made $800 in September 2013 at Pook & Pook, Inc. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“There’s no doubt everyone will be wearing a fresh shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s synonymous with the Saint and his feast day,” a blog on the website explains. The shamrock has its roots in the church, with three leaves signifying the Holy Trinity. Drowning the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day is a historical custom with legend saying that St. Patrick once ordered a whiskey in a bar that came up short. He allegedly told the bartender he had a devil in the cellar that thrived on the bar’s cheating ways and urged him to not cheat his customers. St. Patrick is said to have come back later, only to get a whiskey filled to the brim and proclaiming that henceforth whiskey shall be consumed on his feast day. People would drink the whisky to toast St. Patrick and then either drink the shamrock or throw it over their shoulders for luck.

A large collection of St. Patrick’s Day postcards netted $250 in November 2019 at Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers. Photo courtesy of Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers and LiveAuctioneers.

Green ribbons/hats/pins and shamrocks have been donned on St Patrick’s Day since the late 17th century, and the color has been synonymous with Ireland from the 11th century. The use of the color green even extends to waters and buildings. In 1962, Chicago officials put green dye in the Chicago River green for the holiday. Other cities have lit up skyscrapers and iconic buildings in shamrock green, like The Empire State Building in New York, the Sydney Opera House and Niagara Falls.

Another legend involving St. Patrick, holds that the saint stood on a hill, wearing green clothing, and commanded that all snakes be gone. In reality, given that Ireland is surrounded by cold ocean waters, snakes would never have migrated here.

St. Patrick’s Day would not be complete with a leprechaun. This figural brass nutcracker made $2,750 in June 2016 at Dutch Auction Sales. Photo courtesy of Dutch Auction Sales
and LiveAuctioneers.

Besides corned beef and cabbage, traditional holiday foods include shepherd’s pie and Irish soda bread. McDonald’s even gets in the act, celebrating in 2020 the 50th anniversary of its green-colored Shamrock Shake, which likely has as many fans as haters.

Whether you were born in Ireland or you aren’t but happily put on your “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirt once a year, St. Patrick’s Day offers many traditions to celebrate. If you have the opportunity to visit Ireland, make your way to Blarney Castle near County Cork and smooch to the Blarney Stone (Cloch na Blarnan in Irish), where legend says you will be bestowed with the gift of gab.

Pour some Guinness or a minty shake and, as the Irish toast goes, Slainte!

Kugels: biggest and best Christmas ornaments

NEW YORK – Christmas is a time of vibrant color in a season of cold and snow. Revelers can invite the warmth of the holiday to filter through the sparkle of glass ornaments, especially antique ones known as kugels.

Every family has holiday traditions and stories that are passed down through generations. Most are oral tales of family lore, but fanciful kugels tell stories, too. It’s also been suggested that before they became a Christmas tradition, kugels may have held a more ethereal secret.

A large group of vintage German, French and Indian kugels from the late 19th to early 20th century with various sizes and colors sold as a group for nearly $5,200 on Nov. 12, 2019. Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers image

In 17th century England, inhabitants thought the countryside was rife with witches. Unseen and always up to mischief, these witches needed to be kept far away from hearth and home. And since witches were known to be wary of circular shapes, legend says, a round, sometimes silvered, glass “witch ball” was hung in windows, along ceilings and even as large silvered gazing balls in the garden to keep these evil troublemakers at bay.

Large, clear hand-blown glass balls similar to these were used in the 17th century as a talisman to ward off witches. They may have influenced more radiant, mirror-like figural Christmas ornaments by the mid-19th century. William Bunch Auction & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers image

At the same time an early winter holiday tradition meant the hanging of the greens in homes and churches. Since the Egyptians, evergreen branches have been a symbol of everlasting life. They were brought inside and decorated for the holidays with oranges, apples, candles and sweets as early as the 15th century. When the fir tree was brought indoors for the Christmas holiday beginning in the early 19th century, it may just be an old folk tale, but the colorful witch ball easily transitioned from a personal guardian into a smaller, more festive holiday decoration to bring color and life to the evergreens and the fir tree.

Folk tale or not, glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany, in the early 19th century were making fashionable glass beads, bottles, scientific glass instruments and, of course, the round glass witch balls. Once the indoor trees and evergreens became a holiday tradition by 1847, they transitioned into creating colorful glass balls for decoration. Not long after, the glass balls were lined inside with silver nitrate, tin or even lead to give them a rather distinctive mirror-like finish where they positively glowed near the ubiquitous candlelight of the period. And a delightful holiday tradition was born.

Antique German silver glass squash-form kugel with Baroque cap, 4in high. Sold for $3,000 + buyer’s premium Nov. 3, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Once the glass ornaments were widely accepted, the glass blowers became more creative and pressed glowing hot glass into molds such as a bunch of grapes, eggs, pears, berries, vegetables and even pinecone shapes. Each was hand blown with various vibrant colors from either colored glass, hand-painted on the outside or later sprayed on with a colored lacquer. These kugels (German for round ball), as they became known, were heavy and durable and remained a holiday tradition until about 1890. By then kugel production moved to Nancy, France, where their own lighter, more colorful versions, known as Boules Panoramic, predominated until the 1920s.

Because of their long-lasting durability, radiant color and simple designs, kugels are a collector’s favorite, and auction values in recent years reflect that interest. Collectors, like goldenglow.org and kugelhouse.com, express agreement that color is the first criteria for collectors when determining value. The more easily obtainable are clear glass with only the silver lining along with gold, green, cobalt, most shades of blue and most red colors, although pink is rarer. Darker reds and greens, copper colors, orange and amethyst are hardest to find.

This ribbed pear-shaped early 19th century German-made kugel sold for nearly $22,000 on Aug. 14, 2015. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Shapes are the next criteria after color. Balls and grapes are the most common. Egg, pear and teardrop shapes and ones with ribbed forms are particularly desirable. Any other shapes, such as vegetables, fruits or pinecones, are the really rare ones.

Condition matters, too. “When collecting kugels, try to avoid pieces where the lining has disintegrated. On rarer pieces collectors will often look the other way if the lining is in bad shape, but the reality is that if you try to sell the piece, you may not be able to get a good price with a bad lining,” according to goldenglow.com, a specialist website dedicated to all things Christmas.

German-made glass berry-form kugel, copper color, beehive cap, 3½in diameter. Sold for $1,600 + buyer’s premium Jan. 13, 2018. Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

And beware of reproductions. Vintage kugels made in Germany or France from 1840s to about 1900 were made with a smooth, cut finished hole at the top flush with the ornament. A smooth or embossed brass cap fit easily over the hole with a brass, pronged wire holding the cap against the ornament. A round brass wire fit through the top of the pronged one to hang from the tree that will have aged naturally. Recent reproductions from India were made with a rougher, protruding neck over the hole with the brass cap obviously aged artificially. Vintage kugels are made with thicker glass while thinner ones were made after 1918.

Whether rare or not, vintage kugels are a decorator choice for the Christmas holidays. Featured as a table centerpiece with candlelight, hung from light fixtures, catching light from open windows, formed into wreaths or simply hung on the tree with care, kugels bring a magic of color, brightness and good spirits inside while the weather outside is frightful. There just might be something to the folk tale after all.

Religious Icons: Anticipating the Holiday Season

Arising from the Russian and Ukranian Orthodox worlds are icons – conventional religious images typically painted on small wooden panels and framed with metal sand castings. These icons carry rich histories and intricate religious symbolism. Often portraits or of scenes from the Bible, these ornate paintings remain faithful to the stories of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints.

A fine collection of 27 antique religious icons will be featured in an upcoming Jasper52 sale on Sunday, Nov. 6. Below are some highlights:

Russian icon of Christ Pantocrator

Dating to the 1890s and made using egg tempera and zinc on wood with silver basma, a Moscow hallmark. 

Russian icon, ‘Christ Pantocrator,’ Moscow, circa 1890. Estimate: $1,200-$1,500

Russian icon, ‘Christ Pantocrator,’ Moscow, circa 1890. Estimate: $1,200-$1,500

 

Icon of St. Nicholas of Myra

Done in egg tempera and gesso with brass oklad, this provincial central Russia icon dates to the 1880s.

‘Nicholas of Myra,’ central Russia, circa 1880. Estimate: $325-$425

‘Nicholas of Myra,’ central Russia, circa 1880. Estimate: $325-$425

 

Russian Icon Elevation of the True Cross

This depiction of St. Elena and St. Constantine the presenting the True Cross dates to the 1860s. Elevation of the Holy Cross is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on September 14.

‘Saints Elena and Constantine presenting the True Cross,’ central Russia, circa 1860. Estimate: $400-$600

‘Saints Elena and Constantine presenting the True Cross,’ central Russia, circa 1860. Estimate: $400-$600

 

Russian Icon Savior of Smolensk

This icon shows Christ with his right hand raised in a blessing gesture and his left hand holding a Gospel book. Flanking Him are the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist; kneeling in prayer at His feet are St. Sergius of Radonezh and the Venerable Barlaam of Khutyn.

‘Savior of Smolensk,’ egg tempera and and gesso on wood with silver-plated brass oklad, central Russia, circa 1880. Estimate: $600-$800

‘Savior of Smolensk,’ egg tempera and and gesso on wood with silver-plated brass oklad, central Russia, circa 1880. Estimate: $600-$800

 

Our Lady of Kazan

Our Lady of Kazan, aka Kazanskay Mother of God, was a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan, and a palladium of all of Russia. This fine example done in egg tempera and gesso with silvered oklad dates to the 1880s.

‘Our Lady of Kazan,’ egg tempera and and gesso on wood with silvered oklad, circa 1880. Estimate: $600-$800

‘Our Lady of Kazan,’ egg tempera and and gesso on wood with silvered oklad, circa 1880. Estimate: $600-$800

See the full Religious Icons auction this week and stay tuned for more unique finds.