20 Mar Chapter 10: Evaluating Antiques, Accessories I
If America had one thing in abundance in the 18th and for much of the 19th century it was wood … towering stands of maple, walnut and cherry, along with groves of pine, birch, hickory, ash and poplar. And while such wood species were not unknown to Europeans, the trees early colonists encountered made what they’d left behind look like scrub bushes. Wood moreover is one of nature’s miracles, as there is surly nothing that man has ever devised that surpasses it in terms of strength, beauty and workability. If you’ve ever repaired furniture, you’d know what I mean. Suppose a small corner of some drawer had, decades ago, broken off and the wood is now missing or that some mouse made a hole in the side of a chest. You might say to yourself that one option for repairing the piece is wood filler that, once dry, can be painted to match the nearby wood. Well, that might work up to a point, but let me warn you beforehand that unless your name is Botticelli or Michelangelo, no amount of futzing with paint will make the repair look like the wood it sets next to. You might get the color right and even the faux grain. But no matter what you do and no amount of sitting on your head spitting jelly beans will give that painted area the depth and luster of natural wood. Your painted area will forever have a flat appearance that will stand in contrast to the natural grain of the wood itself. In any event, given the abundance of quality wood of so many types, iwe shouldn’t be surprised to find that an overwhelming share of the things we collect today under the label Americana are made of wood; nor should we be surprised that when it comes to artistic creativity, that artistry is often expressed in what people did with wood. From purely utilitarian mixing bowls to intricately carved butter prints to folk art carvings, wood dominates what we collect today. It’s only logical, then, that once we leave the domain of textiles, our next step in exploring Americana begins with some of the things people made with wood.
Painted firkins, bowls and pantry boxes: Housewives have always had to store their cooking and baking stuff in something. If it’s liquid, in the 18th and 19th centuries they had jugs and crocks, whereas if it was something like flour, sugar, salt and butter, then before Tupperware, that ‘something’ was commonly a lidded wooden box or pail. And when they got around to baking and mixing the dough in accordance with their mother’s recipe, which typically required that you “add flower until it feels right”, then absent an aluminum or glass bowl from Wall Mart, they used one turned from maple. Now the first thing to understand here is that maple mixing bowls and storage containers such as firkins and pantry boxes were rarely painted out of the woodenware shop from whence they came (setting aside the matter of Shaker for the moment). If painted, then the odds are they were painted by their owners to escape a drab dull brown existence. Today, of course, it’s no secret that painted bowls, firkins and pantry boxes command a considerably premium over their unpainted brethren (e.g., $50 or $100 for an unpainted firkin, $350 or $400 for a painted one). But this premium brings to the fore the issue and definition of original paint, since it’s generally only original paint that people value.
To see the definitional problems associated with the notion of original paint, if a 19th century firkin had never been painted up until last week, then technically it’s correct to say the paint is “original”. But surely that’s a different animal than one sporting a hundred year old coat of grungy, scratched and worn milk paint. Or, to add another layer of complexity (pun intended), suppose a firkin got its first coat of paint 130 years ago and then a second a mere twenty years later when its owner decided they preferred a different color. Surely with everything else equal that piece should command a premium over one sporting an “original” five year old coat of latex. To boldly illustrate the possibilities, consider the sponge painted pantry box in Figure 10-1 with a date, 1868, on its lid that we can reasonably assume is contemporary with the sponge decoration. A mid-19th century coat of decorative and dated paint is pretty good in and of itself. However, beneath that paint one can discern an undercoat of salmon paint and a carved inscription on the unpainted bottom that reads 1767. Yes, that’s how old the box is and, odds are, that’s the approximate vintage of that undercoat of salmon paint. So should I discount the value of this box because the sponge decoration is “merely” 150 or so years old and not “original”? So let’s just agree that the older the paint the better, and when I refer to original paint on something, I generally (but not always) mean paint that’s approximately the age of the piece in question.
Fig. 10-1: 1767 Pantry Box with 1868 Sponge Paint Decoration
I should add that this discussion of paint and the meaning of “original” is rendered salient by the fact that milk paint is readily available today, and with the prices commanded by small painted decorative kitchen items having soared in the last few decades (a 16” maple bowl sporting early blue or salmon paint can easily cost you $500 and up, while a stack of four or five graduated pantry boxes in uniform or mixed colors can set you back $1,000 or more) people have become quite skilled at giving paint a worn aged appearance. Take that maple bowl, which itself may be legitimately 19th century (and if it isn’t out of round by at least a quarter inch due to shrinkage, beware of any antique attribution), remove any finish or grease from the outer surface, give it a nice thick coat of blue or yellow milk paint (blue is preferred to yellow or green which is preferred to red which is preferred to brown, black or white), steel wool it down to mimic natural wear, put some added wear to the places that are likely to experience above average abuse (i.e., the rim and the bottom), hit it with a coat of diluted alcohol walnut stain to give it some patina, and then apply a nice colored wax for a finish and voila, “original” paint. But if you have a bit of extra time (and paint), back up a few steps and repaint the bowl with a darker shade over the lighter painted surface and then go at it once again with your steel wool, thereby giving the appearance of an early coat of paint over an even earlier original coat. You might even experiment with a heat gun to give your paint job a dried out look. And if you’re really serious about committing fraud, take your newly ‘improved’ creation and leave it outside for a winter to accumulate some “natural” aging.
The first rule of thumb, then, when evaluating anything that’s painted, especially simple things that are easy to apply artificial wear to is: Assume the paint is new and let a close inspection prove otherwise. Check if there’s paint in any age cracks or chips in the wood — if so, then obviously the paint was applied after the crack or chip appeared (and it does take a few decades for wood to shrink to the point where it cracks). If there’s an area of wood that’s unpainted owing to wear or if the area wasn’t painted to begin with, scratch it with your fingernail. If the color is the same in the scratch as at the surface, then that dark “patina” is contemporary wood stain and not the oxidation that develops with age (wood oxidizes only the surface whereas stain penetrates). Also, if you can, try scratching the paint. Old paint is brittle whereas a more recent coat of latex or acrylic has a more rubbery texture and will tend to peel rather than flake. Finally, be on the looking for fake crackalure. Milk paint or any water based paint doesn’t develop such a surface but old oil based paints do. However, one can buy a chemical that can be added to the painting process so as to induce that dried out cracked aged appearance. Be on the alert, then, when you see a piece in which the crackalure is uniform throughout since legitimate crackalure doesn’t commonly develop that way – not all parts of anything are exposed to the elements in an identical way. Also, the artificial crackalure induced chemically tends to be much coarser than what occurs naturally, akin to making a piece look like a jigsaw puzzle. That might match what happens when an oil painted surface is left exposed to the elements for decades, but not what occurs otherwise. So unless you have reason to believe that the bowl, pantry box or game board you’re looking at was left in the backyard for 30 or so years, you’d probably need a magnifying glass to check for legitimate ageThat’s a possibility of course, butint tends to darken with age, so if you’re looking at a pantry box, remove the lid to make certain the area covered by the lid’s rim is lighter than the rest of the box. Rest assured, however, that some people have become VERY skilled at faking old paint, so it’s best here to approach things with the attitude of guilty until proven innocent.
Before proceeding now with judging the age of common kitchen woodenware, let me divert slightly to note that paint isn’t everything. Form also matters. To illustrate, consider the two slide top candle boxes in Figure 10-2. The one on the left was never painted because it’s made of walnut whereas the one on the right retains its original and early coat of red milk paint. So which is the more valuable? Both are dovetailed and neither has any repairs or restorations so we can’t use that as basis for stating a preference. And frankly, I don’t know the answer to my question since everything here depends on taste. The one on the right is clearly a country piece, but that red paint is precisely as we like it to be – 100% original and bearing a great aged patina. The one on the left, however, is more upscale and the heart cutout to the slide lid moves it into a special category. There are those, then, who will prefer the more formal elegance of the candle box to the left while others prefer anything with original early paint. The choice is yours.
Fig. 10-2: Two 19th C Slide-lid Candle Boxes
Returning now to the pantry box in Figure 10-1, it’s true that rarely will you be able to determine age because someone’s carved or painted a date on a piece. So what are the clues to age, or how can you be confident that the one you’re looking at is at least 19th century? Well first, take a look at the first box in figure 10-3 (upper left) and notice the nails used to tack down the lap finger joints. That’s right, they’re hand forged rose-headed nails, which means the box is most likely 18th to early 19th century. You might ask now as to whether the red wash on this pantry box is legit. Clearly, it would have been painted after it was made, so the nails would have been painted as well. But there’s no paint on the nail heads here so should we conclude that the paint is fake or the nails added to give the appearance of age? That’s a possibility of course but notice that the heads to these hand forged nails protrude from the surface of the wood, in which case over the course of two hundred or so years any paint will almost certainly wear off with any use (since paint adheres far less well to iron than wood). In this instance, then, paint on nail heads would suggest that the paint isn’t nearly as old as the box itself. Rarely, though, will you find a box of this vintage or one using such nails. Far more common will be copper or iron nails such as those on the second box in Figure 10-3 (upper right). With that you can be fairly confident you’ve got yourself a mid to late 19th century box. But suppose the nails look like the ones in the third box shown (lower left). Now you’ve got a problem since it’s not clear whether the nails are cut or extruded (i.e., irregularly shaped of perfectly round heads). In fact, even if they seem irregular, they could be the small tacks an upholsterer uses, which look hand made but surely aren’t. So the final thing to look for is how the top of the lid and the bottom of the box are attached to the side pieces, and here what you want to see are wood pegs as shown in the lower right picture of Figure 10-3.
Fig. 10-3: Clues to Age of a Pantry Box
We’ll return to pantry boxes in a bit, but let me now turn to mixing bowls, and here I think its fair to say that the bigger the better. Twelve or even fourteen inch diameters are ubiquitous and unless sporting an old coat of paint, aren’t worth much (I’ve had good luck finding them at flea markets for under $30). Value increases exponentially, though, with size, so an 18” bowl might command a $200 price even without paint, whereas one that’s, say, 24” could readily bring $400 or more at auction. Value is increased, moreover, if the underside gives the appearance of having been hand turned without any attempt to render the surface smooth (see Figure 10-4a). Lest one think now that this ends the subtle variations one might find in the common lathe turned mixing bowl, take a look at the example in Figure 10-4b. At first glance there might seem to be nothing unusual whatsoever here, but take a closer look at the raised lip around the rim (see Figure 10-4c). Yup, that’s right … a double raised lip. Now the fact is maple mixing bowls are being made today, and unless the bowl in question was hand carved by Native Americans, it was turned on a lathe and began life perfectly round. Thus, if you’re uncertain as to age, any 19th century example will be out of round by at least a quarter to a half inch due to the natural shrinkage of the wood (the bowl in Figure 10-4a, for instance, measures 24” in one direction, 23 ½” in the other). In addition, older round bowls will generally have a raised lip or ridge, approximately 1” wide, running around the outer edge. If a bowl has neither shrinkage nor this lip, it’s most likely 20th century. And if it’s 20th century, there’s a good chance it will have a manufacturer’s mark underneath it (the most common being “Munsing”) unless some faker sanded it off.
Fig. 10-4a: Turned Wood Bowl with Raised Lip and Beehive Turnings
Fig. 10-4b: Another Common Lathe Turned Maple Mixing Bowl?
Fig. 10-4c: Not Quite! Note the Double Lip Rim
Age shrinkage will also cause a bowl to warp somewhat, so a 19th century bowl, when turned upside down, should rock. If one wants to see the extremes to which a bowl can warp with age from shrinkage, take a look at bowl in Figure 10-4d. Now it might seem that such warp is undesirable, but that warp is valued by those who truly appreciate “primitive” and age. And for such a warp to have developed over the course of 200 or so years without generating a crack as is the case here is indeed uncommon.
Fig. 10-4d: A sure Sign of Age
A step up perhaps from round bowls are ones that are oblong (commonly referred to as trenchers), if only because their interior had to be carved or could be turned on a lathe only with some difficulty. But even here there are gradations in quality and desirability. Compare the three bowls in Figures 10-5a, b and c. The first, in Figure 10-5a, is nice enough and even sports cutouts at the end for ease of lifting. The crisp edges and overall absence of patina, though, suggests that it’s at best a late 19th century piece, but more likely early 20th. The second trencher in Figure 10-5b is a definite step up. It’s not only bigger – 26” by 17” versus 25” by 13” – but it does exhibit a wonderful patina and wear consistent with a mid 19th century attribution. It may not have cutouts for gripping, but cutouts on the first trencher are hardly a reason to get excited since they could easily have been added as an afterthought. The third trencher, though, is clearly superior to even the one in Figure 10-5b. First, the subtle handles are anything but an afterthought – they had to be planned when the wood from which it was made was but a rectangular block. And more critically, while its size is comparable to the second (28” by 16”), it bears its original paint. That’s a biggie that renders any concerns about a shrinkage crack at one end to insignificance so that with all things considered, it should easily command a price that’s upwards of 5 or 6 times that of the one in Figure 10-5a and 3 to 4 times that of the trencher in Figure 10-5b.
Figure 10-5a: Unpainted Late 19th C Trencher
Fig. 10-5b: Unpainted Early 19th C Trencher
Fig. 10-5c: Painted 19th C Trencher
Now I should warn you, if you aren’t already alerted to the problem, but when painted bowl acquired the premium they have today in value over their unpainted cousins, painted bowls began appearing on the market like rabbits. The unfortunate fact is, they’re easy to paint and, with the application of a little sand paper and steel wool, fake. So what does good early paint look like? Well, sadly, there are no general rules here. As in all things, experience will be your best teacher. But to perhaps start you on your way, take a look at the rather sizeable bowl in Figure 10-5d and the three close-up images shown thereafter. This is what we like the early paint on a bowl to look like — later brown over earlier salmon, all with utterly natural normal wear for a purely utilitarian item. And I’ll say this straight up and unequivocally: If you know how to reproduce the surface on this bowl, you have a glorious career ahead of you faking antiques. Not only don’t I know how to do it, but even if I did I suspect the time and energy it would take to do it would reduce my wage rate to qualify me for food stamps.
Fig. 10-5d: A 22″ Maple Mixing Bowl with Multiple Coats of 19th C Paint
It’s more difficult to relate size and value when it comes to firkins and pantry boxes. People who collect them typically like to display them stacked in descending sizes, so someone who needs a 7” diameter box to stack between their 9” and 5” boxes will pay more than someone in search of one of those 9” or 5” examples. The sole exceptions here, I suppose, is that both pantry boxes and firkins can get too big, whereas miniatures are a category all their own and might not even be collected to be set on a stack. There are three other things to consider here now. First, firkins missing their lids are nowhere near as valuable as those that are complete (I assume they all had lids originally). Second, oval pantry boxes sell at a premium over round ones. Finally, for whatever reason, pantry boxes with swing handles also sell for a premium over those without handles of any sort. Frankly, I’m not sure why this is the case, but it is.
Fig. 10-6a: Painted Pantry Box with Handle
Fig. 10-6b: Unpainted Pantry Box with Bail Handle
You’ll notice now that I’ve made no mention of Shaker, because they’re a category all their own. Indeed, to speak of Shaker pantry boxes alongside a discussion of their more mundane cousins is probably deemed sacrilege by Shaker collectors. But throwing caution to the wind, if you take an oval pantry box that sports a 100 year old coat of yellow but isn’t Shaker you’re more than likely looking at a $250 or $350 box. But now suppose it is Shaker and has no apologies whatsoever. Feel free then to multiply those numbers by 3 or 5. But some simple advice here: Seems there are perhaps ten times as many oval pantry boxes labeled “Shaker” at flea markets as the Shakers ever made. This isn’t done to deceive – it’s simply out of ignorance as to what a Shaker box truly looks like. So how does one tell the difference? The big clue is the form of the lap joint. Shaker’s made “fingers”, the most prominent being the “swallowtail” as illustrated by the upper left box in Figure 10-7a (the upper right box is also Shaker but with the less pronounced finger form of the first). And when they made that finger, they made it damned carefully so that each is identical to the next (and on larger boxes you can find upwards of five), each tapering in thickness as you move to the tip, and each carefully chamfered on the edge. The copper nails, moreover will be symmetrically placed on each finger. Some might accuse Shakers, then, of being an overly anal clan, but it is nice to see something serving a functional purpose that wasn’t made to fall apart in a few years. The box on the lower left of Figure 10-7a, then, is decidedly NOT Shaker. You might ask, now, why the Shakers took such care in the construction of such a commonplace thing as a pantry box, destined ultimately to hold little more than sugar or buttons. The answer can be found in the lower right box in Figure 10-7a: Shaker boxes avoid the consequences of wood shrinking and expanding with the weather so as to yield the unsightly lap joint seen there. In other words, the Shakers weren’t a part of today gen-X don’t-give-a-damn culture wherein things are used one day and tossed away the next. As a final point of comparison, compare the two handled panty boxes in Figures 10-6a and 10-7b. Both are identical in form and both retain their original coat of paint. But they differ in one big-time way — the chamfered fingered lap joint in Figure 10-7b. And that folks is all the difference in the world … the difference between a $250 painted pantry box and one you’d likely have to pay $850 for.
Fig. 10-7a: Shaker and non-Shaker Pantry Boxes
Fig. 10-7b: Shaker Pantry Box with Handle
Fig. 10-7c: Classic Shaker Oval Pantry Box in Paint
Fig. 10-7d: Classic Shaker 4-Finger Oval Pantry Box
Now a word of caution in all of this: Reproductions abound. Indeed, walk into any store selling new country accessories and you’ll find “shaker boxes” by the gross, all painted wonderful colors and some even worn at the edges to simulate age (and notice I didn’t capitalize the “s” there). Generally, though, the wood in these reproductions (and they are sold as such, not as fakes) is thinner than that employed by the Shakers, and more often than not, the sides aren’t maple, which was the Shaker’s preferred wood for pantry boxes. Beyond that, you’re on your own. But if someone hands you a nice oval box in perfect condition with a seemingly 19th century yellow wash of paint and proposes to sell it to you for, say, $300, then the dealer is either an idiot or a fraud. And unless you’re secure in your own knowledge of things, best to assume “fraud”.
The subtitle to this part of Chapter 10 includes the word “firkin” and perhaps those unfamiliar with this country decorative accent, it’s time for me to offer some examples. Hence Figure 10-8a, which shows two firkins, one in dark red paint and the other in a light gray. The critical thing about both pieces, of course, is the paint. As presented here, a reasonable retail value would be something in the vicinity of $300 — $400 on a good day (for the dealer). But now suppose we strip the paint off. Yes, I understand … there are those out there who love the nice warm feel of natural wood. Well, to put matters bluntly, what you’d then have is something worth no more than $75. Oh yes, I know … I’m sure you’d find the stripped (or never painted in the first place) version priced around $100 or even $125 in some shop. But only the uninformed or those too lazy to search would pop for one at that price. Thus, as with most everything else, paint is the critical variable. Hell, why would you want to decorate your home with something that most likely was originally filled with lard unless it had a good colorful coat of early paint? All or which says: Watch out for the faker – there’s too much money to be made by slapping a coat of contemporary milk paint on a $50 firkin, rubbing it down to give it the appearance of wear and age, and then jacking the price up to $350 or so.
Fig. 10-8a: Two 19th C Firkins with Legitimate Early Paint
Figure 10-8b, now, shows that there never are hard and fast rules to anything, since here we have a firkin that was apparently painted before it reached the hands of the consumer. Although its surface has been ‘marred’ by someone applying a coat of shellac to ‘protect’ that surface, it would seem that after being manufactured, the firkin next went to the Ritters to be filled with its product immediately after getting its coat of paint and a label. Nevertheless, I can tell you that for every firkin such as this one marked with its original label, I’ve seen fifty or more with the label applied to a firkin with no paint whatsoever.
Fig. 10-8b: Painted At the Factory?
To underscore now the importance of paint, let’s consider a totally utilitarian thing … the tool carrier. And I’m speaking here of something a carpenter or cobbler would have simply tossed their tools into when going from one job to the next … a carrier such as the one in Figure 10-9a. Now ignore if you will the fact that the round headed nails here suggest that the one pictured has a 20th century genesis. Imagine, if you can, that those nails are cut so that we can place the carrier somewhere in the 19th century. So what’s it worth then? Well, frankly, I wouldn’t give you more than fifty bucks for it, and even at that price I’d hesitate. Now, though, compare it to the carrier in Figure 10-9b. This is a whole different animal even though it too is “little more than” a tool carrier. But even if we ignore the drawer, its a different animal for the simple reason that it retains its original paint, some black paint embellishments, and the name of its ostensible owner. There is, in other words, no way it belongs in the same category as the carrier in Figure 10-9a. And indeed, insofar as price goes, you best be prepared to write a check somewhere north of $500 to own this one (unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to find it at an estate sale run by someone with no appreciation for or understanding of original 19th century paint).
Fig. 10-9a: Run-of-the-Mill $50 Tool Carrier
Fig. 10-9b: NOT Your Ordinary Tool Carrier
To this point our discussion, with but one exception (Figure 10-1), focuses on things from the 19th century. So what about earlier woodenware? Well, it certainly exists and I can’t say it’s rare since I’ve found a number of examples of it out here in the vast Americana wasteland of California. And perhaps it isn’t surprising that it can be found, since surely during the 17th century and most likely into the 18th, if you were living in the countryside (which included just about everyone) and if you ate off a plate or out of a bowl, odds are it was made of wood and looked like the pieces in Figure 10-10a (all of which were discovered out here, but obviously brought west by antique collectors seeking a bit more sunshine and less snow). This is only logical since the material to make functional plates and bowls off of which to eat did literally grow on trees whereas the alternatives — pottery, porcelain, pewter and tin — had to be mined, processed, manufactured, imported and so on. The thing though to be noted about this woodenware is that the pieces are small, from which we might surmise there was a rather scarce supply of large lathes on which to turn wood in those parts of the colonies with Indian arrows flying thru the air, which again included just about everywhere. In the 17th century King Phillips War (1675-78) saw towns such as Springfield Mass. and Kingston R.I. burned to the ground, and more than half of all New England villages attacked, while throughout the 18th century the natives were often none too friendly in and around the Appalachians. In such circumstances it’s a tad problematical maintaining a woodworking shop, so the fact that such relics can’t be deemed rare speaks to the perseverance of the early settlers and perhaps the value they placed on these primitive eating pieces. But if you’re wondering about the clues to their age and concerned about reproductions, take a close look at Figure 10-10. As small as these pieces are, they’re old enough to have warped and exhibited the same degree of shrinkage as a much larger 19th century woodenware mixing bowl. Of course, if you’re going to eat off a wood plate, you’d probably pour your drink from a wooden pitcher into a wooden cup such as that shown in Figure 10-10b (or if not wood, then perhaps a cup adapted from a cow horn).
Fig. 10-10a: Some 17th or early 18th C Woodenware Plates
Fig. 10-10b: A Drink Anyone?
Bride’s Boxes: Returning to the subject of pantry boxes, there is one category of bentwood boxes that warrants special notice because of some confusion as to their origins – those labeled “bride’s boxes”. Briefly, bride’s boxes (and please don’t ask the basis of that label) are oval and generally large – on the order of 17 or so inches long. Also, to have any value, they should be profusely painted like the four in Figure 10-11a. Finally, notice the lap joints on those boxes. Rather than nailed, they are woven down with a thin reed. Ok, so much for a description of their character and construction. But now for the big question: Where are they from? Are they American or Scandinavian? Good question, since I’ve seen them attributed in every conceivable way. The problem with attribution is that they are commony made of birch and it just so happens that birch tress exist in Scandinavia as well as here and it doesn’t take a very big tree to fashion the wood for one of these boxes. In other words, America’s advantage of big trees counts for zip in making an attribution. So while there may be those that originate from, say, Pennsylvania, if shown a box at random and absent a rock solid provenance (as opposed to where grandma said it came from), it’s probably safer to be conservative and to assume Scandinavia. But a secondary question is: Does it matter? Honestly, I don’t think so. It’s been my experience at least that a well decorated bride’s box can be expected to sell for something in the range of $400 to $1000 without anyone worrying too much as to whether it’s from this side of the Atlantic or the other. Take for example the four brides boxes in Figure 10-11a, which all sold at the Jean Warden auction sale at Bonhams San Francisco in 2014 for prices ranging between $500 and $1,000. All four were advertised as “American or Continental” and I dare say that absent a microscopic analysis of the wood, it would be difficult if not impossible to say which side of the Atlantic they originated from. More important, if anything dictated variation in realized prices it wasn’t a guess as to origin but rather the quality and vibrancy of the paint along with, of course, the absence of any damage or evidence of repainting (and so you can assume that the boxes in Figure 10-11a would sell for less than those in Figure 10-11b). If origin is that important to you, find something else to collect.
Fig. 10-11a: Four 19th Century Bride’s Boxes
Fig. 10-11b: Which Is The $500 Box and Which The $1,000 One?
While on the subject of American versus Scandinavian bride’s boxes I might as well address the matter of Scandinavian painted accessories now. So consider the two pantry boxes in Figures 10-11c and 10-11d. Both are 19th century and both retain their original painted decoration. Neither, though, is American (notice the construction of the fingered lap bands); specifically, they’re Norwegian. So what should your view of them be? Well, that depends. Of you’re a purist about collecting Americana, they should be of no interest to you whatsoever. If you’re buying them for resale, keep in mind that as nice as they are, they command nowhere near the price of comparable American pieces. But if you’re simply decorating your home with good country painted items, keep this in mind: Were they American, you could take whatever market value they have as good Norwegian folk art and triple, even quadruple the cost. In other words, unless the loose change in the bottom of your pocket book exceeds several thousand dollars, you best forget about being able to afford comparable American pieces. There, hope that answers any questions you might have about them.
Fig. 10-11c: Norwegian 19th Century Pantry Box
Fig. 10-11cd Another 19th Century Norwegian Pantry Box
Burl Bowls: There is one category of woodenware that commands special attention – bowls (and other kitchen implements) made out of burl, the cancerous gnarled part of a tree. Now why anyone would want to make a bowl out of this part of a tree is beyond me, though given the helter skelter nature of the grain I suppose you’re guaranteed it wont shrink in any consistent way. Perhaps those who turned bowls on a lathe needed a challenge but unfortunately they’re not around for me to ask them. In any event, being a more difficult wood to work with, they are far less common than other types of bowls (with the wood generally being ash or elm) and, correspondingly, more expensive. If we exclude those with handles or anything that gives even the slightest appearance of being a handle, then a good (read: un-cracked or a bowl that hasn’t been repaired by having wood filler added somewhere) 14” bowl can easily fetch $1,500 while its 18” diameter counterpart can shoot past $2,000 in value. There are, of course, smaller burl bowls, and in general they will be valued at under $1,000. These numbers can be pushed a bit both up and down, depending on a bowl’s depth (and the vagaries of the market). A good 16” bowl, for example, should be at least 5” deep whereas an 18” example should be 7” or more. Also, raised lips as opposed to utterly smooth sides are preferred by collectors (see Figure 10-12a). Of course, as with everything in this world, miniatures fall into their own special category, so everything I’ve said about size reverses itself when bowls become uncommonly small such as the one in Figure 10-12b. There is, in fact, one additional exception: Bowls with handles or extended lips that hint at being handles. Typically associated with Native American artifacts (e.g., Iroquois), the price of such bowls can soar above $5,000 and it wouldn’t be uncommon for them to head into the five digit category depending on size, condition and elegance of form.
Fig. 10-12a: Two Burl Bowls with the Desirable Raise Rim
Fig. 10-12b: Miniature Burl Bowl
Fig. 10-12c: Native American (Woodlands) Burl Bowl
Fig. 10-12d: Closeup of Bowl Above
Fig. 10-12e: Burl Bowl with Early Paint
Fig. 10-12f: Closeup of Bowl Above
Fig. 10-12g: Supremely Delicate Burl Teacup
Fig. 10-12h: Native American (Woodlands) Burl “Belt Cup”
Fig. 10-12i: Burl Cup of Unknown Origin (But Probably Continental)
It is, admittedly, sometimes difficult to decide whether a bowl ought to be classified as burl. For those in Figures 10-12a and 10-12b, there’s no question as to whether they are burl, but consider Figure 10-13a. This is surely a nice piece with an uncommon grain and possibly even Native American. But is it burl? Frankly, I don’t think so, but that’s my opinion and I’m sure there are dealers who would advertise it as burl (if only to justify pushing the sticker price up a bit in their shops). How it’s classified and sold, then, is up to you if you’re a potential buyer, but just be prepared for the next person to come along and say it’s simply a nice bowl with a nice grain but not burl. The same issue can be raised with the two earlier and more primitive Native American bowls in Figures 10-13b and 10-13c. The first in Figure 10-13b is clearly burl, albeit more primitive than the burl bowls we looked at previously. The bowl in Figure 10-13c is made of the same wood and same vintage, but is it burl? There’s a hint of the swirling grain, but only a hint. So how we’d classify it is largely a matter of taste.
Fig. 10-13a: Burl or Not?
Fig. 10-13b: Hand Hewn Burl Bowl
Fig. 10-13c: Hand Hewn but Is It Burl?
There is, though another problem with burl bowls that’s far more serious than a wood being only marginally burl; namely, reproductions. And I don’t mean bowls that have been recently turned and made to look old – I mean bowls that aren’t even wood! Take a look at the bowl in Figure 10-14, which isn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination but nevertheless seems to at least marginally qualify as burl. But there’s only one problem here … it’s not wood, but a cast resin. The crack and imperfections aren’t real … the bowl is a complete fake. Now the fact is you should be able to identify this fake by feel and weight, but beware of that seemingly fantastic bargain when shopping a flea market in dim morning light and your hunger for a steal overcomes the caution you should always exhibit when shopping for antiques. If an additional salutary warning is needed, consider the burl bowl in Figures 10-14b and 10-14c. At first glance there might seem to be little to differentiate it from the two burl bowls in Figure 10-12a, and there isn’t even on close inspection. Indeed, not only the the burl wood virtually identical to the two previously considered, but this one is, as age requires, out of round a bit and, as Figure 10-14c shown, a tad warped. Nevertheless, this bowl was purchased from someone who knew its maker and, therein, knew it was a product of the 20th century. So there … let that be a warning to ya!
Fig. 10-14a: Fake Burl Bowl that’s Not Even Wood
Fig. 10-14b: “Vintage” Burl Bowl
Fig. 10-14c: The Same Bowl as Above
Game Boards: Before I even begin here you first should get yourself a copy of Tim Chambers and Shelby Shaver’s The Art of the Game. It will make you drool while at the same time learning more info than I can every convey here. Be that as it may, what I can contribute is the warning that if there was ever a lively domain for the faker with some skill at making paint look old, it’s that of game boards. But before we get to that, let me note that the two most common types to be considered are Checkers and Parcheesi. Parcheesi boards are generally more expensive because there are fewer of them and they tend to be more colorful. So while a good Checkers board might fetch two or three hundred at auction, a comparably aged Parcheesi board can be expected to bring multiples of that number. Of course, as with everything, it all depends on age and color, and here, once again, is where problems begin. Keep in mind that a great many legitimate boards date to the 1900s, even the 1920s. Thus it may be difficult to differentiate them from a contemporary product made to look old wherein someone has taken the cutting board from a 1920s Hoosier cupboard, incised some lines to form the squares, and added distressed paint accordingly. All I can tell you here is to be on the alert. Nothing I’ve said here, though, should be taken to mean I’m advising that you stay away from a game board made in the 1930s or ‘40s if your purpose is adding color to your decorating scheme. Pictured in Figure 10-15, for instance, are four boards all found at local flea markets, all of which date to that period (or later even). None, in other words, is strictly antique and thereby falls into that meaningless catch-all classification of ‘vintage’. But at the same time, none can be classified as a fake since no attempt was made to artificially age any of them. In other words, they are what they are and what they appear to be. The board in the upper right is perhaps the oldest of the lot while the Chinese checkers board is possibly the youngest (I was surprised when I first picked it up to find that the paint wasn’t still tacky). None, though, pretends to be other than a decorative accessory. And as such, each can be expected to sell in the range of $75 to $200, depending on taste and pocketbook.
Fig. 10-15: Some Average Quality Vintage Game Boards
Prices rise dramatically when one turns to 19th century boards. For example, the Parcheesi board in figure 10-16a, which is indeed a legitimate antique, can be expected to sport a price tag in the area of $1,000 to $2,000. So the question, then, is: How does one differentiate a 19th from a 20th century board? To begin with, most such boards have a thin wood trim around them, and checker boards a narrow strip of wood approximately three inches in from each end so as to separate the actual playing grid from a part of the board where a person can keep their checkers (see for instance Figure 10-16b). For a legitimate 19th century board look for cut nails holding any trim in place. There’s also a good chance the board was made from a single piece of wood and has, over time, developed some shrinkage cracks. So make certain there’s no paint in those cracks, since otherwise the paint came later than when the crack formed. Some confidence in age is also generated if you can feel the waves from hand planning to the board’s backside. After all, before the era of electric planers, why spend the time making the backside of a game board as smooth as its playing surface? If you see a board that passes all these tests for age, and if it has nicely contrasting colors (e.g., red and white, or blue and red, or black and yellow), its value can readily shoot past $500. There is, though, one additional feature of such boards that can push their value up even further – decoration. Often, a board will be decorated in some manner at the ends (or in the case of a perfectly square board, around all four sides or corners). That decoration might include a name or initials, or might take the form of the pin striping common to other types of Victorian-era pieces (think, for instance, of doll buggies). Since graphics and color render game boards a decorative collectible, any embellishment adds to value in the obvious way.
Fig. 10-16a: A 19th C Parcheesi Game Board
Fig. 10-16b: Classical American Checker Board with Separators
There is, though, one type of game board that typically sells at a heavy discount relative to painted boards – marquetry boards. That discount is due to the obvious fact that they lack the boldly contrasting colors of paint which is why one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches would cost you ‘only’ a years wages while one of his paintings would … oh, forget it, Interpol is probably looking for it. As with everything, though, there are exceptions and the marquetry board in Figure 10-17 is one of them – in part because of its detail but also because it offers the option of playing backgammon as well as checkers.
Fig. 10-17: An Above Average Marquetry Game Board
You’ll notice by the way that all of the checker boards illustrated thus far consist of an 8 x 8 grid. On occasion, however, you’ll encounter one with 12 squares to a side such as the one in Figure 10-18. Well, as it turns out, Canadian Checkers (Draughts) is played on a 12 x 12 board, so that could very easily be the origin of this one. But as with everything else, there are never any certainties. Of course, draughts was played here as well, and overall it makes no difference whatsoever insofar as value is concerned as to whether the board is 12 x 12 or 8 x 8 — its the pure visual appeal that matters. Indeed, often you find a board such as the one in Figure 10-18 that’s 12 x 12 on one side but its opposite presents the more common 8 x 8 form. Maybe it’s from Maine or New Hampshire and provision was made for someone to drop in and bring a six-pack of Molson’s with them.
Fig. 10-18: A Canadian Checkers (Draughts) Board?
To this point the game boards I’ve used as illustrations were all hand made ostensibly by those who intended to use them as such. That doesn’t mean, though, that there weren’t commercially made boards that are every bit as decorative as a hand made one. Take for instance the board in Figure 10-19a. Clearly a commercial product and clearly colorful, this one though caught my attention for what it said about marketing in the 19th century. Specifically, take a look at its backside in Figure 10-19b. Yup, that’s right …. its a sewing fabric cutting board. So not only was this item targeted, presumably, to the kiddies and the old man, but to the woman of the house as well. And I bet you thought marketing and consumerism was a 20th century thing!
Fig. 10-19a: Commercially Made Gameboard
Fig. 10-19b: The Backside
Closely related now (ok, so I’m stretching a bit, but I have to fit them in somewhere) to game boards are carnival or gaming wheels, largely because they too can add color to a décor. However, unlike game boards, while you may from time to time find the occasional non-commercially made wheel, 95% of those you’ll encounter were made and painted professionally. There’s nothing wrong with this since a professionally manufactured wheel is actually likely to have greater eye appeal than one slapped together for an illegal game of chance at the local men’s club. But by way of comparison, consider the three early 20th century wheels in Figures 10-20a through 10-20c. The first, in Figure 10-120a, uses a bicycle wheel as its supporting structure – a not uncommon thing. In my mind at least, it is utterly boring with minimal visual appeal. At a flea market I’d have to think twice before forking over just two Ben Franklin’s for it although I suppose on a pure white wall it might fit with a modernistic decor. But as an accent piece for the country look, it just doesn’t do it for me. The wheel in Figure 10-20b to my eye is a definite step up in terms of its appeal and while smaller than the one in Figure 10-20a, should command a greater price – upwards of $250 to $400 (ok, I’ll confess – I like red). The last wheel, Figure 10-20c, has the greatest appeal among the three – almost patriotic in its color scheme (which I suppose excludes today’s looney left from having it appeal to them). Add the fact that it’s also an imposingly large wheel (42” in diameter as compared to the more common 35” for one in Figure 10-20b), I can readily envision this wheel bringing $650 or more at auction. Finally there’s the table top gaming wheel in Figure 10-20d that, because of its condition, color and size would most likely bring between $600 and $1,000 at auction.
Fig. 10-20a: A Boring Carnival Wheel
Fig. 10-20b: A Good Carnival Wheel, but Relatively Common
Fig. 10-20c: A Carnival Wheel with Good Visual Appeal
Fig. 10-20d: Front and Backside of Late 19th C Table Top Game Wheel
Wood Trade Signs: If age and color are the primary dimensions of relative value when it comes to game boards and gaming wheels, then if we add that of subject and form, we have the criteria normally used to evaluate another decorative accent – trade signs. There is, of course, the universal criterion of condition, but here we need to keep in mind that trade signs were commonly hung outside in the elements. Thus, we need to cut some slack when evaluating a 19th century sign (don’t go searching for one made earlier unless you’re planning a midnight museum break-in) and even for early 20th century examples. I’m told that houses can benefit from a paint job after 20 or 30 years, so just imagine what happens to a sign that’s hung undisturbed for 50 years outside of some establishment. But for that reason it’s also often difficult to distinguish between, say, a sign painted in 1870 and one that was first exposed to the elements in 1920 (see: Weathervanes). As with game boards, one telltale clue is to look at the edge molding (if it has one) and see if it’s attached by cut nails. A second and more obvious clue is if it has a telephone number – you know what that means (though the number of digits is a good clue as to what part of the late 19th or early 20th century it was made). Also, be on the lookout for repainting. Shopkeepers didn’t have trade signs because they planned on having them become decorative collectibles, so when nature’s elements did their job, the owner would most likely have the sign repainted. And if ownership changed hands, why not leave the sign in place and repaint whatever has to be changed? One last clue to age is lettering style. Though not a foolproof clue, keep in mind that sign painter wages were considerably lower in the 19th as opposed to 20th century, so 19th century lettering (as well as the sign itself) has a tendency to contain more flourishes.
With respect to the dimension of color, surely the more colorful the sign, the better – or to be more exact, the more graphically exciting the better. We are, after all, talking about something intended to be decorative and not simply a way to tell your houseguests there was a dentist named Fishbind seventy five years ago. The next dimension, subject matter, is a bit more difficult to contend with, but one category of sign just referred to – those for lawyers, doctors, dentists, and so on that merely give a name and occupation command only modest prices. The reason is obvious: First, such signs are primarily simple in form — black on white or white on black. And if your last name is Smith or Jones, what’s your connection to “A. Abergale, Dentist” or “F. Fitch, Attorney at Law”? Answer: None. So why have the sign in your house? One possible exception is if the sign has other, less common features. For instance, I have one that dates to the 1890s advertising “W.E. Francis, Meat Market,” (Figure 10-21) and I know no one with that last name. However, the lettering is especially elaborate, the background color is an uncommon teal, and there are painted flourishes to the right and left of the lettering.
Fig. 10-21: 19th C Trade Sign with Uncommon Color
In general, though, signs that advertise products or services – Groceries, Garages, Painting & Paper Hanging, Horse Stables, Drug Stores, Hats, Shoes and so on — such as the signs in Figure 10-22a and 10-22b – are in greater demand than those that focus on a specifically named person. And while the sign in Figure 10-22c is not as graphically interesting as those in the preceding two figures, or nearly as old, the subject – General Store – is sufficiently generic that it renders is suitable for a number of decorating schemes.
Fig. 10-22a: Ca 1920 Trade Sign
Fig. 10-22b: 19th C Trade Sign
Fig. 10-22c: Mid 20th C Trade Sign
This leads to the next dimension of value, which is perhaps as important as age – a sign’s form. The most common form is the wholly rectangular sign, but even here there are variations. Some have letters simply painted on them whereas one step up are signs with dimensional (applied) letters, often gold gilded. Beyond this, antique (and even vintage) figural signs – signs that take virtually any form other than rectangular such as a hat, a tooth, a mortar & pestle, a clock or a boot command a premium over signs that are little more than a flat painted board – especially, as is often the case with trade signs for apothecaries, dentists, cobblers and clock makers, they are 3-dimensional. Indeed, those 3-dimensional signs can readily soar above $1,000 and $2,000 in value. The trade sign in Figure 10-23, while not figural, is clearly a step up from one that’s simply a rectangular board. If I had to appraise it, I’d probably give it a value in the range of $1,000 to $1,500. The sign in Figure 10-24a, on the other hand, is figural and unquestionably 19th century. It lacks the imposing size of the one in Figure 10-23 (a mere 18” high versus 56”) and I know some will disagree with me here, but I’d put the same value on the boot as the one in Figure 10-23. The trade sign in Figure 10-24b, though, takes us to a more exalted place. Obviously originally mounted outdoors – presumably projecting from the side of a building – at 27” high it’s intermediate in size, but its bold figural character moves it up past $2,000 in value (or at least I’d like to think so because that’s what I paid for it).
Fig. 10-23: A Large Better Than Average Late 19th C Trade Sign
Fig. 10-24a: Figural Trade Sign of the $1,000 to $1,500 Variety
Fig. 10-24b: A Figural Trade Sign of the $2,000+ Category
Now I don’t want you to take what I’ve just said about the differential value between figural and plain rectangular signs as biblical tract. There are always exceptions. Consider first the sign in Figure 10-25, which is a train schedule board taken from a now long defunct Union Pacific depot. In and of itself, it’s a pretty bland sign – simple lettering, black and white and utterly rectangular. Moreover, it’s hardly 19th century – most likely from the 1940s. But now consider that model train enthusiast with a basement laid out with a maze of track, engines, train cars and accessories so that he can pretend, after getting home from work, that he’s the real owner of all four railroads in the board game Monopoly or a competitor of railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt or Jay Gould. Imagine the pleasure he’d get from having this sign on his wall, adding to the atmosphere of his basement. Don’t ask me what he’d pay for such a sign, but he won’t be looking at it as just some piece of rectangular painted wood.
Fig. 10-25: Ca 1940 Train Scheduling Board
Now just as the sign above gives the lie to what I’ve said thus far about form and color often dominating age as criteria of value, the opposite can also be true. Take for instance the sign in Figure 10-26a. Purely rectangular, minimal color and the focus is simply a name. So what do we make of it? Well, frankly, I’d love to own it for the simple reason that its early 19th century (and possibly earlier). In other words, its damned old for a trade sign. Unfortunately, I never will own it because it’s currently hanging in the Huntington Library museum in San Marino California.
Fig. 10-26a: Early 19th C Trade Sign
OK, so I can’t own that one … what about the sign in Figure 10-26b which I like even more although it too is “merely” rectangular? Clearly a superior sign what with the horse (people love animals), original paint and a date of 1851. But alas, it too is in the Huntington, and insofar as I know there’s no price tag hanging off it. Be that as it may, the signs in Figures 10-26a and 10-26b do prove that age can certainly overcome any simplicity of form.
Fig. 10-26a: Another Trade Sign from the Huntington
Again, if you’re in the market for signs from the early 19th century or even the mid to late 19th, you best be prepared to pay a good price for them … $1,000 and up. You might then, holding your nose in the air, tell me “you don’t think I’d lower myself to collecting 20th century signs do you?” Well if that’s your attitude, then you most likely have forgotten what 1900 was like in a good share of America. It wasn’t all New York City, Boston, Philadelphia or even Chicago. Consider for instance the two photographs in Figures 10-27a and 10-27b. Pretty interesting signs I’d say. Not necessarily museum quality, but surely decorative. Wanna guess when those pictures were taken? Well, the image of the offices of the infamous Judge Roy Bean was taken in 1900 while that of Hazen Nevada in 1905. Yup, those are turn-of-the-centry signs you just rejected.
Fig. 10-27a: The “old West”
Fig. 10-27b: Where’s the Bordello?
You’ll notice that I’ve thus far left tin and glass signs out of the discussion. That’s because such signs, when they deteriorate, do so in unsightly ways. Rather than merely have paint fade as on wood, tin rusts and paint, rather than merely fade, flakes off exposing the raw metal. Glass signs, although they don’t rust (did I have to tell you that?), also deteriorate via flaking, leaving a view of whatever lies behind the glass. In addition, glass signs can be quite heavy, so good luck hanging them (and here in California, anything hung must be safeguarded against the possibility of an abrupt movement [read: earthquake]. A falling wood sign damages only what’s below it, but a glass sign’s range of havoc is far greater and you can kiss the sign adios).
To all of this I should add that there’s one category of sign that seems, for a variety of reasons, to possess a special niche of its own in terms of desirability – the barber pole. Barber poles almost by definition satisfy two of the principle criteria of value in a trade sign – they are dimensional and they are colorful (I’ll ignore the enameled steel signs here as well as the 20th century rotating electric ones). And not only are they colorful, they are colorful in a patriotic way – red, white and more often than not, blue. Originally, barbers did more than merely cut hair – prior to the 1750s (and often for a time thereafter) they mixed hair cutting with such activities as teeth pulling, blood letting, and so on. Thus the red corresponded to blood stained bandages while the white to clean bandages. The addition of blue has an imperfectly understood origin. Some say it represents venous blood versus red arterial blood while other say that it simply made barber poles more patriotic. Be that as it may, the range of values here is, like almost anything else, enormous. A simple 20th century version intended to be hung outside a barbershop door might sell for, say, $400, while a similar version from the 19th century (or even early 20th) can move up past $2,000 easily if in good condition. Some poles are no more than 2 or 3 feet in length, but then there are those made to stand on the sidewalk and, in terms of height and diameter, look like the wood came from a saw mill that made telephone poles (see for instance Figure 10-28a). Barber poles of this type, if they include the name of the shop on the base along with the advertisement of a shave or haircut for 5 cents, can easily climb in value to $5,000 or more. But as with anything painted (and keep in mind that value here, as with virtually all other trade signs, resides in its paint. Strip the paint off and you have a piece of wood and nothing more), due diligence is required to make certain you’re buying what you think you’re buying. The danger is two-fold. First, finding a pole with a single coat of original paint is indeed a find, since it’s not uncommon for barber poles to retain several legitimate early coats of paint. The barber in question wasn’t thinking ‘Americana’. He was selling a shave and a haircut, so when his pole’s paint deteriorated from the elements, he repainted it. That second, third and even fourth coat is no less legitimate than the first. But this opens the door to the faker, and the danger should be apparent to anyone visiting a Home Depot. Take a look at those brand new 3’ freshly turned newel posts for a staircase. Now imagine it with several coats of distressed paint. See the problem?
Fig. 10-28a: Classical 8’ Outdoor Barber Pole, ca 1900
To all of this I should add that there a “barber poles” that might not in fact be from a baber shop. Take for instance the “pole” in Figure 10-28b. First off, it’s not a pole per se but rather a 10-sided something (decahedron if you insist) made of then strips of tapering wood. It surely adds as much color as does a more traditional pole, but did it set once upon a time outside of a barber shop. Who knows? I don’t. For all I know it was a post to some carnival building. But who cares (unless, of course, you’re specifically interested in collecting only those things guaranteed to have been associated with barber shops).
Fig. 10-28b: Barber Pole or Something Else?
There is, unfortunately, a specific category of trade sign to which any caveat emptor warning applies in spades – Hollywood props. There was a time when the movie studios in and around Los Angeles maintained massive warehouses of props, including period highboys, Native American artifacts, collections of Windsor chairs, and so on. And then there was a period when those studios, for various reasons, emptied these warehouses and became a source of legitimate antiques. But not everything MGM, 20th C Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers or Paramount stashed away for some future movie was antique or even vintage. Also scattered about were (and are) “prop houses” employing skilled craftsmen who can recreate the interior of Pharaoh’s tomb, the White House, or an entire colonial village, complete with furnishings, all from a truckload of plywood, bags of plaster and some foam. So take a movie produced in the 1990s or ‘80s but set in, say, the streets of New York ca 1920. Don’t for a minute assume the trade signs you see on the buildings were anything but props made for that or some other movie. Or take that old Western street scene with its saloon, drygoods store, jail, whorehouse and land office as backdrops to two gunslingers facing off. Once again, the odds are the signs you see are of the same vintage as the movie itself (ok, so maybe the whorehouse didn’t have a sign). And when those highboys, Native American artifacts and Windsor chairs from prop warehouses hit the market, so did those recreated signs.
With this in mind, consider the boot trade sign in Figure 10-29a. Even a cursory examination reveals that it’s at best vintage and not antique and also unlikely to have hung outside in the elements. That it has some age is hinted at by the absence of paint in the shrinkage crack running thru the word “Fine”. But did it hang in a legitimate store or merely appear in some Hollywood production? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for certain. Here on the West coast one should be suspicious – cynical even – but what happens when such a sign moves east 2,000 miles and appears at a flea market where people are unaccustomed to movie props? Of for another example, consider Figure 10-29b. When I found this sign at a local flea market I assumed my day had been made – colorful, in good aged condition and with an image to die for since it doesn’t get much better than a paddlewheel Mississippi steamer spewing flames. Of course, the first thing I did when I got home was Google “Dixie Queen.” And guess what I found? NOTHING! Insofar as I can tell there never was a Dixie Queen on the Mississippi or any other river. So what to make of this sign. Well, frankly, it remains a mystery. It seems a tad too well executed to be a Hollywood prop. But at the same time, unless there was such a boat, I certainly can’t label it a trade sign. So for now at least it’s yet another addition to my (unfortunately ever-increasing) collection of ‘antique and collectibles’ fakes and mysteries.
Fig. 10-29a: A Hollywood Prop or Legitimate Trade Sign?
Fig. 10-29b: Another Fake?
Silhouettes: Suppose you wanted an image of the family as a remembrance and something to pass on to later generations. Unfortunately, the first commercially viable form of photography wasn’t introduced until 1839 (by Louis Deguerra) and didn’t hit America’s shores in any serious way until the 1850s. So up to that point you had two choices: Find an artist who’d paint whatever image you wanted or, cheaper still, find a silhouettist. So turning first to silhouettes, let me set aside those made by well known and highly collectible artists (e.g., Peale, Edouart, Day), and begin by noting that antique silhouettes come in three forms: hollow cut, paper cut, and drawn (ink or watercolor). With a hollow cut, the foreground paper is cut to the image and then backed by a contrasting (generally black) paper or cloth, whereas with a paper cut it’s the opposite – the image is cut from a dark sheet of paper and then pasted to the lighter background. Insofar as I can tell, collectors are largely indifferent between these two forms, but a premium is paid when either is combined with the third form. Here the artist uses ink or watercolor to enhance the foreground or background image – highlighting the hair, a collar, buttons on a coat, a scarf and so on. Thus, while a plain unadorned and unidentified silhouette might sell for no more than $100, add some of these delicately painted flourishes and you can begin climbing up past $200. Consider then the four silhouettes in Figure 10-30. Frankly, the pair in the top row are utterly boring and may not even be terribly old. One would at least like to see some toning to the background paper, and as I recall I bought the pair simply for the period grain painted frames, which were worth more than the silhouettes themselves. The pair at the bottom row are more interesting not merely because they are legitimately old (ca 1840s), but the painted flourishes and accents bring what would otherwise be a boring pair to life.
Fig. 10-30: Four Decent Frames, 2 Reasonable Silhouettes
To see in a more pronounced way how drawn embellishments can upgrade a silhouette’s presence, consider the two in Figure 10-31. The one on the left is nice enough and even dated 1844. The one on the left, on the other hand, while undated, is clearly more interesting because of the painted accents, which make the young lady’s image more than a mere shadow on a wall. Adding to it is the painted chair so that the silhouette actually begins to cross over into the category of a watercolor drawing.
Fig. 10-31: A Comparison of Two Paper Cut Silhouettes
Additional value comes now if we begin to add people, as illustrated by the two examples in Figure 10-32. The value of the one on the left is held down by the fact that its most likely post Civil War, judging by the woman’s dress, and thus would sport a price tag in the vicinity of $250 to $350. The one on the right is earlier – presumably the 1830s — so that its value would likely lie in the $450 to $600 range. What’s important, here, though, it to note the sharp increase in value once we consider silhouettes with more than one person. Indeed, to push prices up even further we can continue adding people – children especially – along with background accents so as to frame the silhouette in a specific setting. The silhouette in Figure 10-33 illustrates the complexity that can be achieved, which is this case is augmented by a date (1844) and the name of the artist (Weston, New York City). Don’t be shocked to find a silhouette such as this one ticketed at around $1,500.
Fig. 10-32: Multi-person Silhouettes with Painted Flourishes
Fig. 10-33: Uncommonly Complex Paper Cut Silhouette, Signed Weston & Dated 1844
To all of this must be added some warnings. It’s tempting to think that silhouettes of famous personages would command a premium. But there are exceptions. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century silhouette images of George and Martha Washington proliferated like gerbils (I’d add old Ben Franklin to this list as well). What you want then is an image of someone like the disgraced Aaron Burr, or Georgia’s Button Gwinnett, one of the more obscure signers of the Declaration of Independence. I should also add that a jeweler’s loop is essential when judging a silhouette. First, if your eyes are anything like mine, you’ll need it if only to ascertain whether you’re looking at a hollow or paper cut. More importantly, you’ll need it to learn whether you are in fact looking at a legitimate silhouette or a print. There’s an entire series of full bodied silhouettes covering the primary political figures of the day (e.g., Daniel Webster, Henry Clay) that, with the unaided eye, look damned good, but with a loop are revealed to be mere prints. As such, the frame is easily worth more than the image.
One other form of silhouette warrants special attention: Puffy Sleeve images of women. The label identifies the form wherein the woman’s upper arm sleeve is drawn puffed all out of proportion to anything you might see in reality but where her hand and waist correspond to someone with an anorexic deformity. Figure 10-34 offers two examples. There’s nothing I can write here, though, that would convey more information than if you simply headed to a website such as http://www.peggymcclard.com/aaa%20Silhouettes.htm (which is as good a place as any to learn about silhouettes generally). Such silhouettes command a hefty premium ($2,000 and up), so be on the lookout for those along with one of old Button (which may not exist).
Fig. 10-34: Two Puffy Sleeve Silhouettes
Oil Portraits: Anyone whose taken even the slightest notice of the portraits of long dead ancestors that might be found in an antique shop specializing in Americana or in the American wing of some museum will often come away saying to themselves “boy, that artist sucked”. They surely don’t compare well with the paintings to be found in any European museum, at least in terms of detail and realism. There is, though, a very good explanation for this difference. First, ask yourself: Who in 18th or early 19th century Europe could afford to have a portrait of themselves or the wife or the kids painted for them? Answer: Only the well-to-do. If you lived in some landed estate with its 50 room mansion, portraits of you and your ancestors were a necessity — and unless your business partner absconded with your wealth, you had the cash to pay for it. And if you had the cash to pay for it, you hired an artist who’d spent years learning his craft. If on the other hand you were a tenant farmer or the mill hand in some textile plant, a portrait of the family was pretty far down the list of things you’d be willing to spend your meager salary on. Once again, Ebenezer Scrooge could afford a portrait (though he was doubtlessly too cheap to purchase one), but Bob Cratchit surely couldn’t. Now jump across the pond to America. Once again, your upper 1% can afford portraits painted by some European-trained artist, such as John Singleton Copley or a Gilbert Stewart. And just as surely the 19th century farmer living in a sod hut or log cabin in America’s midwest wasn’t much concerned with acquiring a family portrait as opposed to a better plow. But then there’s America’s great middle class from sea captains to shop keeprs to prosperous farmers with a yearning to leave some remembrance of their existence. They, no less than that 1%, appreciated having some record of the family grace their home. But unlike that 1% most likely didn’t have access to a Copely or the means to pay one. Enter the itinerant untrained artist. And when I say itinerant and untrained I mean precisely that. Some of America’s most sought after folk artists began their careers doing something other than painting portraits. Rufus Porter (1792-1884), for example, learned his craft by first apprenticing to a house painter, graduating thereafter to painting gunboats and then sleighs. Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822) was first and foremost a doctor, and but an amateur portrait painter; Jacob Eichholtz (1776 – 1842) worked first as a tinsmith before picking up a brush; Justus Dalee (active as artist 1826 – 1847) appears to have entered the world of commerce teaching penmanship; and Joseph Badger (1708 -1765) never advertised himself as anything but a house painter. Even those whose only known career was that of portrait painter had little to any formal education; seeing they had a talent for drawing, they proceeded directly to the search for clients.
Now keep in mind that more often than not, those clients were hardly familiar with the artistry produced in the salons of Paris or gracing the homes of England’s landed gentry. Their expectations as to what was good or acceptable most likely matched the minimal skills of the local untrained artist. The result was a genre of paintings that, while perhaps appreciated as art by those who knew the people portrayed by them, went largely unappreciated by nearly everyone else. The general view throughout most of the 19th century is perhaps best expressed by this 1829 assessment (of John Neal, as quoted in Beatrix Rumford, ed., American Folk Portraits, 1981): “We have certainly, either by nature … or by accident, something that appears like a decided predisposition for paintings in this country … If you cannot believe this, you have but to look at the multitude of portraits, wretched as they are, that may be found in every village of our country. You can hardly open the door of the best-room any where, without surprising or being surprised by, the picture of somebody, plastered to the wall and staring at you with both eyes … (emphasis added).” But now enter the likes (and money) of Abby Aldrich Rockerfeller early in the 20th century, and suddenly those “wretched” paintings become, like quilts, understood as a quintessential American folk art form and manifestation of America’s economic development.
But now we have a problem; namely, how to evaluate a portrait if we can’t judge it by how closely it mimics a photograph. So to begin, let’s set aside any consideration of value associated with portraits painted by one of the well-known and highly sought after American folk artist (e.g., Ammi Phillips, Erastus Salisbury Field, Sheldon Peck, Matthew Prior, Joseph Whiting Stock, etc). Once we get past this, there are at least four dimensions of value: Age, condition, style and subject matter. As with almost everything else, age counts, but perhaps both more and less than you might think. Frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in the value of a portrait painted in 1790 versus one from 1830. In fact, most of the folk art portraits that collectors seek date from the first and even second quarter of the 19th century. It’s when we cross that 1850 or 1860 threshold that age truly comes into play, and to put it bluntly, once a portrait gains a Victorian air to it, prices drop off a cliff. Once photography becomes a comercially competing medium for capturing a person’s image for future generations, portrait artists have three options: (1) take up photography as a profession, which several in fact did; (2) learn to paint with greater attention to detail and in a more academic style, thereby losing the folky quality of your earlier work; or (3) find another profession. I can’t tell you the number of estate sales I’ve been to in which I found Civil War era portraits priced around $1,000 or $1,500. Well, to put things bluntly, I generally wouldn’t want those portraits for free (or if you want, toss the portrait and give me the frame). In my experience they have little to no market value (unless of course it’s a relative).
So moving on to condition, what commonly happens to a two hundred year old portrait on canvass short of someone accidentally puncturing the canvass with a foot or whatever is that the wood frame over which the canvass is stretched shrinks and the portrait becomes a tad loose and wrinkled – or one can begin to see the impression of the stretcher on the canvass itself. The solution here is to re-line the portrait by “gluing” it down do a new canvass (don’t do this yourself – you’ll notice the quotation marks around the word gluing). Relining has but a modest impact on value, but generally when a portrait is relined, the paint itself will most likely have some touchup work done to it (called “in-painting”). And here you can run the gamut of a total repaint to minor restoration of the background (buy a black light since a well done restoration may be invisible to the eye). Touchups to the background, like re-lining, have little impact on desirability; but anything done to the face – repainted eyes, lips, etc – wreck havoc with value. And by wreck havoc, you can take a $2,000 portrait, do some in-painting to the face, and you now have a $300 sheet of framed canvas with which to cover the torn wallpaper in your hall. Of course, if that in-painting is done poorly, you’re back to owning (at best) a very nice frame.
What I’ve just said impacts how you should evaluate a torn canvass. If the tear is in the background, it can be repaired by a good restorer with minimal impact on value. But if the tear or hole is on the face, the best thing to do is move on and avoid the piece entirely. So with that in mind, lets move on to the issue of style. Here I fear my words are going to fail me, since I don’t think I can state the difference between “academic” versus “folky”, and it’s generally the folky look that collectors want. Keep in mind that the likes of Ammi Phillips, Matthew Prior and so on were essentially untrained artists who traveled about the countryside offering to paint portraits as a way to pay for their next meal (or drink as in the case of the folk art carver Wilhelm Schimmel). Also, keep in mind who they painted for. If the likes of a Cornelius Vanderbilt or any other member of America’s “1%” wanted a portrait or two for their mansion, they weren’t likely to hire some scruffy character traveling about on a wagon knocking on doors and handing out flyers that read “house and sign painting and portraits done cheap”. The clientele for the likes of an Ammi Phillips or a Matthew Prior was America’s burgeoning middle class – those who could afford a few luxuries for the home, but who weren’t about to head off to one of the Boston, Philadelphia or New York City studios of some formally trained artist who could afford to maintain an urban studio. They and the likes of a Gilbert Stewart might have shared an American heritage, but that’s about all they shared – it certainly wasn’t formal skills as portraitists. Their work, as a consequence, exhibits little to none of the detail and dimensionality of an academically trained artist. Indeed, one of the characteristics of their work was an inability to draw such things as hands and ears (don’t ask me why … I’m not an artist), and often it’s the peculiar characteristics of hands and ears, along with the often strange coloring and shading of the face or a poorly proportioned head, that allow a painting’s attribution. Look, for instance, at Figure 10-35a. Those are hands, or at least what passes for hands in a painting by Ammi Phillips. Or how about the two portraits in Figure 10-35b. In either case one can only hope that neither woman’s physique matched what we see here – in one case, a woman who has no shoulders (a characteristic of Erastus Salisbury Field) and in the second of a woman whose neck begins to resemble that of a giraffe (Ammi Phillips again).
Fig. 10-35a: Ammi Phillips Hands
Fig. 10-35b: Two Strangely Proportioned Women
Also, as the two images in Figure 10-35b illustrate, portraits by America’s itinerant artists have what’s called a “flat” appearance that sometimes verges on the comical or a step away from looking like a cartoon. Now you might think that this is what collectors prefer to avoid. Well, guess again … that’s precisely what folk art collectors lust for. So take two portraits of the same vintage, size, and condition: The more academic one might have a market value of, say, $750 whereas the seemingly more crudely executed example could readily command numbers like $3,000 and up. If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at the portrait in Figure 10-36. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame you one bit if the first thing that came to mind are those sidewalk artists who for $10 will spend fifteen minutes penciling your image on a sketch pad. Well, as it turns out, this portrait can be attributed to on of America’s most highly sought after folk portraitists, William Matthew Prior, and the painting itself hangs prominently in the American Art section of the Huntington Library.
Fig. 10-36: Portrait by William Matthew Prior
Beyond this all I can tell you is to hit the internet and begin Googling some of the better known folk art portrait painters to see what I’m talking about. Or better yet, get yourself a copy of American Folk Portraits: Paintings and Drawings from the Abby Aldrich Rockerfeller Folk Art Center, edited by Beatrix T. Rumford or Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association, by Paul S. D’Ambrosio and Charlotte M. Emans. So in lieu of further study here of style, lets get to subject matter. Anyone who has spent any time looking at early 19th century portraits will most likely come to the conclusion that women nearly universally suffered from a case of the uglies. Or as Private Ryan said in the movie Saving Private Ryan, fell out of a tree and hit every branch on the way down. I’ve seen portraits where I’m surprised the husband didn’t assassinate the artist after he saw how his wife had been portrayed (or had the husband simply adapted to reality?). And trust me, the men were no Cary Grants or Sean Connerys either. Consider, for instance, the two husband and wife pairs in Figures 10-37a and 10-37b. Your guess is as good as mine as to why anyone unrelated to either pair would want them hanging on the wall overlooking a quiet dinner at home. There is, admittedly, the semblance of a smile in the first pair, but the second seem to share a mutual disgust for having to pose for their portraits. While this second pair is the product of a well known and documented American artist, who wants a portrait of some unknown woman who looks as if she’s ready to throw Hansel and Gretel into her oven?
Fig. 10-37a: A Typical Early 19th C Example of the Uglies
Fig. 10-37b: A Grouchy Couple by Zedekiah Belknap (1781 – 1858)
So what’s left other than the rare pretty woman? Answer: Children. People love children, especially portraits that portray a full length image of a child, preferably with the little spoiled darling holding a toy or accompanied by a pet cat or dog. Once we get here (or a family portrait with children), numbers begin to climb … $3,000 and up if there are no major issues (i.e., restorations). And better still if the child isn’t frowning, which folk art painters seemed to do a lot for some reason … maybe it’s the dresses that boys had to wear back then which led them to refuse to smile. In fact, be careful in deciding whether you’re looking at a boy or girl – back in the early to mid 19th century, little boys wore dresses when posing for a portrait so if “she” isn’t adorned with a necklace, then “she” is probably a “he” (transgender I’m sure wasn’t in the dictionary yet). Part of the reason now why people like portraits of children is that they open to door to color (and to cute portrayals of pets). Men wore black, period! And more often than not, so did the women, though here there was some room for color in frilly collars, head scarves and ribbons. But with children, there are few constraints with respect to color so now robin’s egg blue or deep red attire becomes the norm. In short, with portraits of children, you can readily move away from drab formalism and ugly people and adorn your walls with charm and color.
To give this discussion visual content, consider the four portraits in Figure 10-38. The first two are a somewhat typical semi-unattractive husband and wife pair and normally not something that would deem to be of much value. In this case, though, the pair was executed by Ammi Phillips and that gives them value – most likely in the vicinity of $5,000 as a pair. But again, that’s ONLY because of the attribution (though they do benefit from the fact that both are smiling). Compare this pair to the third portrait. In this case we have an unattributed painting, so no value can be attached to a name. But offsetting this is the skill with which her hat and lace shawl are executed and the fact that she’s uncommonly attractive for a portrait of the period … not a raving beauty, but not someone to scare the bejeesus out of little kids either. So for me at least I’d far prefer to have her staring down at the dining room table than the pair by Phillips and see little reason to not attach a respectable valuation to her (let’s say $2,500 as a guess). It’s the fourth portrait, though, that while also being unattributed, is likely to garner the greatest interest among those wishing to decorate a home and who care little about the artist who painted her. If there is a negative here is simply the absence of a smile. None of these portraits, though, holds a candle to the one I discussed awhile back in Figure 4-9 –- the girl in the red dress. The colors there are striking, the girl a delight, and the canary an uncommon and visually appealing addition. Even in its unrestored condition, I’d put a value on it of at least $10,000 without batting an eye.
Fig. 10-38: Four Portraits of Varying Desirability
If there is an exception to the preference for unattributed portraits of children over adults it’s when the portrait gives you an idea as to the subject’s profession – a ship in the background for a sea captain, a scientific instrument for an architect or scientist, an identifiable book in the hand for an academic or poet. People like it if there’s a story of some sort behind a portrait even if the identity of the subject is unknown, and portraits that hint at a profession take us part way there. So if you take an otherwise ordinary unattributed image of a gentleman that might be valued at, say, $700 and add a ship to the background (or a mariner’s spyglass in his hand), expect the price to shoot up past $1,500. To illustrate what I mean, consider the unattributed portrait in Figure 10-39a. The man, attired so as to allow a ca 1800 attribution, is pleasant enough, but if that were all we had, it would be difficult to value this piece above a number such as $500. But then there’s the book, which in this case offers quotations from a number of 18th century poets and philosophers who are arguably relevant to the American Revolution (see Figure 10-39b). One of the larger quotations is from Joseph Addison’s 1713 play, Cato: A Tragedy. So taken was George Washington of Addison’s portrayal of Cato that he had the play performed before the troops at Valley Forge and frequently included quotations from it in his personal correspondence. The mere hint, then, that the portrait’s subject either played some role in the Revolution or was at least sympathetic to the cause doubles or triples its value.
Fig. 10-39a: Classic ca 1800 Portrait with an Added Touch
Fig. 10-39b: The All-Important Book in His Hand
You’ll notice by the way my presumption throughout this discussion that the painting was done on canvas. Often, though, you’ll find one done on a smooth wood panel. I can’t honestly say whether there’s any added value to this even though canvas portraits are far more numerous – condition and subject matter continue to largely dictate value. The wood used, however, is often useful in distinguishing between an American versus a European (especially British) portrait – if its poplar, its American; if its mahogany (or oak) it probably isn’t. It’s as simple as that. Suppose now that you’ve acquired a portrait by a listed or known American portrait painted and would like to know its approximate age. It’s here that you can take advantage of the fact that a good many such artists have been the subject of extensive published research. Take for instance the portrait in Figure 10-40a, which is but a better view of one of the portraits in Figure 10-38 and is attributed to one of America’s best known 19th century artists, Ammi Phillips. Now take a look at the four portraits in Figure 10-40b, copied from The Museum of American Folk Art’s Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter 1788 – 1865 (Clarkson Potter, Inc, NY, 1969). See any similarities? Well you better. Three of the four women are holding books in their hand in precisely the same way as in Figure 10-40a, with the fourth having a letter or broadside of some sort substituted for a book. These four portraits are given dates between 1817 and 1821, which seems a pretty good guess for the portrait in Figure 10-40b as well. This comparison, though, tells you something else. Artists like Phillips, when traveling from town to town, were unlikely to paint each portrait consigned for as a wholly unique creation. A cynic might say they fell into ruts; a more tolerant judge would understand the need for a degree of efficiency in painting if a living wage were to be made, so they cut corners by reproducing the same theme until they developed a new one (out of boredom?) or a new one was demanded by a client. I’ve even heard it said that some portrait painters carried with them an assortment canvasses executed in their off-hours that were complete except for the head, thereby allowing them to finish a commissioned portrait in a day (I bet you thought ‘motel art’ is 20th century thing). It’s in this way, though, that an expert in early American portraiture – someone familiar with the evolving style of specific artists – can attribute a painting since only a small handful were ever signed.
Fig. 10-40a: Portrait by Ammi Phillips, ca 1820
Fig. 10-40b: Four Portraits by Ammi Phillips, 1817-1821
Now let me slip in a disquieting note about American portraits; namely, that their values have plummeted in today’s market. Take for instance the two portraits in Figures 10-41a and 10-41b. Both are lovely examples of early American oil on canvas images of children, which ceteris paribus are more desirable that portraits of ugly old people. Nevertheless, values are down. The solitary girl in Figure 10-41a sold recently (June 2018) at auction for $950 (before buyer’s premium). Interestingly, this same portrait sold at Christie’s London studio two years earlier (November 23, 2016) for a tad more than $1,600. Now if that doesn’t seem bad to you … and it is only one data point after all .. consider the portrait in Figure 10-41b. That too sold for $950 this year whereas Christie’s in New York sold it some eight years earlier (January 21, 2010) for $4000 before buyer’s premium … or a whopping 76% drop in value. Pretty horrific, huh?
Fig. 10-41a: $950 or $1,600?
Fig. 10-41b: $950 or $4,000?
If the decline in prices doesn’t scare you, how about fakes and reproductions? Take, for instance, the portrait in Figure 10-42a. While no beauty, this isn’t someone who is destined to scare the wits out of little children (except perhaps at night), and if you encountered this painting at a flea market priced at $125 as I did, you’d assume you’d just absconded with the bargain of the day if not the month. A closer inspection, moreover, is unlikely to dampen your joy as you walk down the aisle of the flea market holding the portrait in your hand as if you’d just slain a dragon. The painting exhibits a light crackalure consonant with its presumed age (see Figure 10-42b) and the frame itself appears to be of the period with its delicately embellished painted surface (see Figure 10-42c). After tearing away the paper backing, you’d discover a newer canvass (see Figure 10-42d), but that merely suggests she’s been relined – an eminently acceptable restoration. Finally, you’d find no surprises under black light – a few inconsequential touchups to the background, but nothing that ‘lights up’ near the face or the lady’s attire. Now, however, comes a nasty surprise. Take a look at Figure 10-42e. That’s right – the portrait is signed and dated: 1952 !!! It’s not old. Hell, it’s barely vintage. So suppose, still in disbelief as I was (once again, with the mind trying to rationalize the impossible), you remove it from the frame. Well, guess what? It hasn’t been relined. The new canvass that you see from the back is the canvass on which the painting is painted. As a matter of fact, with the paper torn fully off the back you also learn that the frame isn’t old either. How’s that for a kick in the teeth? That flea market find just went up in a puff of smoke (and for a time yet another addition to my collection of fakes, though in this instance, with that signature, merely a highly skilled reproduction). But here’s why I’ve fessed up to my flea market blunder: Imagine someone taking this portrait and cutting it off the stretcher to reline it and in doing so, they also cut off the signature and date. And assume they dump the frame with their trash on pickup day. What are the chances you’d buy it thinking it’s of the period (i.e., ca 1820)? I know the answer: ‘damned high’. Again, then, caveat emptor.
Fig. 10-42a: Federal Style Oil on Canvass Portrait
Fig. 10-42b: Crackalure to Portrait in Fig. 10-36
Fig. 10-42c: Embellished Frame for Portrait in Fig. 10-36
Fig. 10-42d: Back of Portrait in Fig. 10-36
Fig, 10-42e: Lower Left Corner of Portrait in Fig. 10-40
Tole Trays: If you expect me to cover the entire range of toleware from trays to document boxes to tea canisters to coffeepots to whatever, you’re nuts. The scope of tinware that people chose to decorate with paint covers just about everything ever made from tin. Adding to the complexities here is the fact that painting tin seems to have remained a folk art form well into the 20th century. It is, though, only the 19th century versions that have a discernible market, and so it will behoove you to learn how to identify 19th versus more contemporary paint. With this in mind, take a look at the hand painted tole tray in Figure 10-43a. At first glace you’d have to say “Wow, it can’t get any more ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ than this.” Heck, the paint even shows age. There is, though, one small problem – the tray’s form isn’t a typical 19th century form. First, it’s oval, which would at best push it into the later part of the 19th century. But take a close look at its rim (Figure 10-43b). The rim is perfectly rolled and formed, as if it were pressed out by some large industrial machine – which it was. Now it’s true that Figure 10-43b shows clear evidence of age, but do you have any idea what this tray would look like if it were simply set outside for a few years and compelled to survive a few Northeast or Midwest winters?
Fig. 10-43a: Tole Tray with Wonderful ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ Motif
Fig. 10-43b: Machine-formed Edge to Tray in Figure 12-13a
None of this is to say, however, that the tray in Figure 10-43a doesn’t have value. It’s too nicely painted to be tossed off into the category of “contemporary” and, most likely, it does date to the early 20th century. Thus, in the formal sense at least, it is an antique by virtue of being 100 or so years old. But now if you think you’ve seen this tray before, you have … in Chapter 5, Figure 5-11c. The fact is I once owned this tray, sold it on eBay as early 20th century, only to have it some time later reappear on eBay as being early 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch (and, of course, rare). And I might add, offered by someone who I’m certain knew better … someone who was in my humble opinion perpetrating a fraud. It behooves us, then, to ask: What, does a 19th century tole tray look like? The answer depends on what part of the 19th century you’re talking about. Figures 10-44 and 10-45 offer two examples of Victorian era trays, one hand painted (Figure 10-44) and the other stenciled (Figure 10-45). Notice the difference now between these two and the tray in Figure 10-43a aside from the obvious one of form; namely, these older trays have a wider and somewhat simpler border. Also, the cutouts for handles are typical of trays of this era.
Fig. 10-44: Hand Painted Victorian Era Tole Tray
Fig. 10-45: Stenciled Victorian Era Tole Tray
But now, what of even earlier trays from the first quarter of the 19th century … those that a folk art Americanna collector would collect? Well, the first thing to consider is the fact that an early tinsmith couldn’t simply pick up the phone and order a roll of tin. It had to be smelted, pounded out, smoothed, etc. The tray in Figure 10-43a is 32 inches long, 25 inches wide. An early 19th century American tinsmith simply didn’t have access to a sheet of tin that large. Unsurprisingly, then, none of the four trays in Figure 10-46, all found on the auction site liveauctioneers.com, exceeds twelve inches in width despite the fact that all exceed in value any of the previously illustrated examples. And it wouldn’t be uncommon to find trays of even this small size made out of two sheets. Their rims, moreover, aren’t rolled in any complex way to be concave or convex … they’re simply bent upwards with a rolled over edge. There is, by the way, another reason for the relative size and simplicity of these earlier trays. It’s one thing to have a machine that, on an assembly line basis, can pound out a hundred or a thousand trays per hour. A bigger tray merely requires a bigger machine. But if everything is made by hand, size is time and time is money once again. It was also the case, at least for the period we’re talking about, that wood was a heck of a lot cheaper than tin and considerably easier to work with. So if you needed a big tray, make it out of wood. You can always paint that if you wish. And if you weren’t interested in paint, then how about pewter? Pewter is far softer than tin and, hence, easier to work with (and if you wanted to recycle those worn out and bent pewter spoons and teapots, then just melt them down on a stove and voila … pewter for a plate or charger). It’s no surprise, then, that there are a great many more 18th and early 19th century pewter chargers out there (‘plates’ with diameters greater than, say, 14 inches) than early tole trays of the same vintage.
Fig. 10-46: Early 19th C Tole Trays
To perhaps better illustrate the differences in construction between early versus late 19th century toleware, consider the two trays in Figures 11-47a and 11-47b. The first is a simple stenciled tray stamped out from a single sheet of tin, so just imagine the machine that produced it. Whatever that machine was, tinsmiths sure as heck didn’t have one in the back shed in the early 1800s. But now look at the second tray in Figure 11-47b. First, there’s the difference in the decoration – hand painting versus stenciled. But look further, at Figures 10-47c and 10-47d. What you’ll see now is that the tray is actually made of 3 separate and smaller pieces of tin – one for the base and two for the sides. This is how you made something when the industrial revolution hadn’t yet replaced the skilled tinsmith.
Fig, 10-47a: Late 19th C Tole Tray
Fig. 10-47b: Early 19th C Tole Tray
Fig. 10-47c: Construction Detail to Tray’s Sides
Fig. 10-47d: Construction Detail to Tray’s Base
Miniatures: Originally when planning this volume I intended to include a discussion of miniatures in my chapter on furniture since what I am about to discuss is miniature furniture. But miniatures are as much about folk art as anything else, and so, in part to balance chapter sizes, I decided to include that discussion here. I’m referring now to chests, desks, chairs and cupboards that are made 1/3 or ½ to scale and often, in the better pieces, constructed precisely as their full-sized brothers and sisters. Because of size they’re often referred to as salesman’s samples, though it’s hard to imagine any salesman hauling around a bunch of miniature chests or cupboards on the back of a wagon. When’s the last time you watched a wagon overturn in some Hollywood Western when being chased by a band of Apache or Cheyenne and saw a load of miniature chests and chairs spill out? Miniatures, more likely than not were either whimseys made by a craftsman for the sheer heck of it or as a child’s toy (and often for a well to do Little Lord Fauntleroy). The miniature chair in Figure 10-48, for instance, is too small for a child to sit on, and unnecessary as a salesman’s sample. So the odds are that it was made and sold so that some rather well-to-do little girl could display a part of her collection of French bisque dolls.
Fig. 10-48: Miniature Victorian-era Chair
When it comes now to evaluating a miniature, pretty much the same rules and criteria apply as when dealing with a full sized piece. So to begin, let’s turn to what is perhaps the most common type of miniature, a chest of drawers. Running through some examples, consider first the cherry miniature in Figure 10-49. Given the simplicity of its design and construction, this is a piece that was most likely destined to be some child’s toy. It sure as heck wasn’t an advertisement for a cabinetmaker’s skill. The first question one needs to ask about it then is: Is it old (i.e., 19th century)? The clues to answering this question are, again, pretty as before: Style, dovetailed drawers, 19th century (cut) nails wherever nails are used, and patina in the right places. So checking the chest in Figure 10-49, it’s evident that it doesn’t conform to any specific style aside from that of “country”. So style offers no clues. It’s the hand dovetailing to the drawers along with the patina to the back (and the bottom) that gives us confidence we’re dealing with a legitimate 19th century piece. There is, though, one anomaly – the backside patina of the back splash doesn’t match the rest of the chest. Now it is true that a hardwood like cherry will oxidize at a slower rate than soft poplar or pine, but one still should question whether the backsplash here is a replacement or a later enhancement.
Fig. 10-49: A Mediocre Miniature Cherry Chest, ca 1840
Now consider the rather idiosyncratic miniature tiger maple chest in Figure 10-49, which, like the example above, doesn’t conform unambiguously to any specific style. The overhanging top drawer and side half columns suggests late Federal (a nice name for “Empire”), but a cause for concern when judging age is the fact that the drawers aren’t dovetailed – they’re simply nailed together. Nevertheless, all the nails are small cut nails, consistent with an 1840 attribution, while the patina to the back is what we expect (and again, notice that a hardwood like maple shows little oxidization when compared to poplar). Further evidence of age is offered by the shrinkage cracks visible to the right and left sides of the pillars at the level of the top of the bottom drawer. Everything fits, then, with an Empire-period attribution of age (roughly 1830 to 1845), and the only remaining and unanswerable question is why this peculiar chest was made in the first place. Once can speculate that it was originally a whimsy or a small jewelry chest for a sweetheart, but such speculations will forever be precisely that (until and unless some dealer tries to make up a story so as to make the chest somehow more appealing to the retail public).
Fig. 10-50: Miniature Tiger Maple Chest of Peculiar Design
Figures 10-51a and 10-51b illustrate more conventional miniatures – in the first case a two part walnut blind door step back cupboard that stands but 29 ½ inches tall, 17 ½ inches wide and is thereby a perfect one third to scale, and in the second a similarly sized but tad later (ca 1880) glazed door stepback cupboard. Miniature cupboards like these seem to have been a favorite when making something for a child – perfect I guess for all those miniature teacups and saucers. In this case, then, it seems reasonable to suppose that this piece was indeed a toy. They were, nevertheless, toys made by someone with skill at cabinetry (yes, the drawers are dovetailed and whatever nails exist anywhere are clearly 19th century).
Fig. 10-51: Two Miniature 19th C Walnut Step Back Cupboards
Figures 10-52a and 10-52b now offer examples of miniature chests that, with their turned legs, clearly match a specific style and period: Sheraton, so ca 1820. About the only thing these two miniatures have in common, though, is age. Even if we look past the replaced knobs in Figure 10-52a, the chest in Figure 10-52b is clearly the superior example. Not only do four as opposed to three drawers give it a lighter more balanced appearance, but the tiger maple drawer fronts move it into a category of its own. About the only improvement you could make here is to have it constructed entirely of tiger maple. Thus, I’m confident the second example would sell for two or three times that of the first.
Fig. 10-52a: An Average Miniature Mahogany 3-Drawer Chest ca 1820
Fig. 10-52b: A Superior Miniature Cherry & Maple 4-Drawer Chest ca 1820
Miniatures are not limited, of course, to chairs, chests of drawers and cupboards. There is, though, one category of miniature that is often a source of confusion – blanket chests. Figure 10-53 offers two examples of miniature blanket chests and here I want the reader to guess why I didn’t classify them simply as document boxes. No, it’s not because I wanted to upgrade their status and hence their value. It’s the fact that both have feet – the blue example at the bottom a pair of “shoe feet” commonly found in Pennsylvania and New England, and the one at the top with a more conventional bracket base. Now consider the green box in Figure 10-54a. Is it a document box or a miniature blanket chest. Some people might ask, to quote Hillary Clinton, “what difference does it make?” I suppose, in the case of boxes at least, one might say ‘none’ – but in fact it does. As a ‘mere’ document box, one could expect this piece to retail for something in the vicinity of $200 (the paint, after all, is original and early), whereas if it were to somehow be upgraded to the status of miniature blanket chest, its auction value can double. Thus, don’t be surprised when dealers label any old box a miniature with a correspondingly inflated price tag. Indeed, as I type these words I find nine listings on eBay for “miniature blanket chest”. But of those nine, only three are in fact blanket chests whereas the other six are mere boxes like the one in Figure 10-54a. So if you’re haggling over price, the best ammunition you can have is to note that a box such as my green clunker has neither feet nor what 90% of all blanket chests have inside them – a lidded till (see Figure 10-54b, which is the inside of the top box in Figure 10-53).
Fig 10-53: Two Miniature Blanket Chests
Fig. 10-54a: A Document Box and Nothing More
Fig. 10-54b: The interior Till on a Miniature Blanket Chest
Fig. 10-54c: A Miniature that’s Unquestionably a Blanket Chest (with Original Paint)
You might ask, by the way, what purpose a till served aside from holding small goodies that might otherwise get lost at the bottom of a chest. The answer is that with the till lid up, the blanket chest’s lid (whether full sized or miniature) can rest on it leaning forward so as to keep it from falling and chopping off your fingers or giving you a whack on the head while you’re poking around. Now you might not give a twit about knowing this if you’re going to use a full sized chest as a TV stand or if your miniatures are in a stack. But the till lid can provide evidence as to whether the chest’s lid is original. Over the course of 150 or 200 years, at some point someone somewhere will have used the till lid to prop the chest open, in which case the till lid is likely to have made a scratch (and possible, with enough use, a groove) in the underside of chest’s lid. If that groove isn’t there or if it’s in the wrong place and doesn’t match up to the till’s lid, a big red flag should have just gone up the flag pole.
The topic of miniatures also gives me an opportunity to discuss again the impact of restorations and to note that a restoration does not always have the impact you might suppose. Because miniatures are, by definition, small, any restoration is, comparatively speaking, necessarily “big”. However, consider Figure 10-55, which shows a 3-drawer cherry miniature that’s experienced the following “indignities”: (1) Replaced knobs; (2) replaced trim on three sides of the top: (3) two replaced pieces of trim just above the feet; (4) one replaced foot; and (5) one repaired foot. From that list you might wonder whether the chest was carried into France in the arms of some GI on June 6, 1944. Clearly, the repairs and replacements here are anything but cosmetic – heck, without them the chest, with only 2 ½ original feet, would tip over. So I assume we agree that its restoration is considerable, and we all probably know a dealer or two who’d tell us that the chest isn’t worth squat and that if they owned it, they’d use it for a doorstop. But is such an assessment likely to be universally shared? Before we argue about this, let me tell you a little more about the piece. First, until it came into my possession, it had been in the same family throughout its life beginning around 1820. Second, it was accompanied by a multi-page letter, written sometime in the 1930s by one of its owners, then in his 70s. He writes about playing with it in his childhood and describes some of the indignities it suffered at his hand. The letter continues with a description of some poor repairs implemented by his father and how, many decades later, he retrieved it from its original home in Pennsylvania, brought it to California and restored it professionally since the letter’s author had by then become an experienced cabinet maker (and if you saw the chest in person, I’d challenge you to figure out which foot he made). So here we have a piece in which restorations are themselves part of the chest’s provenance, part of its life’s story. So as a restored chest is it worth more or less than if nothing had ever been done to it? The answer, I think, is anything but obvious, but I can tell you that it did indeed sell to a collector who would actually have been at best minimally interested in it if it hadn’t needed restoration and lacked a documented history.
Fig 10-55: Restored Cherry Miniature Chest
So much for the relatively common forms of miniature. Figure 12-46 offers an example of something that we might deem rare (though I have seen another one nearly identical in form) – a miniature mule chest in its original blue paint. Thus, while an ordinary miniature blanket chest might retail for between $300 and $600, the mule chest in Figure 12-46 with its blue paint – perhaps the most sought-after color in painted things — should, in anything but a dead market, readily shoot above $2,000 in value.
Fig 10-56: Miniature Mule Chest, Original Paint, ca 1830
Next up is one of my all time favorite miniatures – the painted document box in Figure 10-57. One can ask, I suppose, why it was ever made. But who cares? It exists and that’s all that matters. Please give me a call if you find another one.
Fig. 10-57: Miniature Painted Document Box
I have thus far largely ignored Tramp Art in this volume – those boxes, frames and whimsies ostensibly made by itinerant carvers at or about the turn of the century from scrap wood and empty cigar boxes. I’m not about to assess this category of collectible, aside from observing that when the prices for this folk art form shot up in the 1980s and 90s, their availability shot up as well. Seems that not only were there itinerant carvers wandering about in America looking for a few coins with which to buy that next pint of backwoods brew, but there was an ample supply of the same in Germany hoping for their next drink of schnapps. And with that increased supply, prices did what our introductory economics textbooks said they would do – they, as happened with painted pantry boxes, firkins, bowls and the like, dropped like stones. Some people, admittedly, are either slow learners or stubborn mules, so even today I can find tramp art boxes at the flea markets priced at $450 and $550 – retail numbers that made sense twenty years ago, but that leave them setting in a dealer’s booth month after month after month. In any event, for purposes of completeness, let me offer the miniature in Figure 10-58 as a better than average example of this folk art form. In this case we have a sideboard that while miniature, stands nearly three feet high (34 ½ inches to be exact). It isn’t, though, merely size and form that makes this an uncommon piece. One of the important dimensions with which to evaluate any example of Tramp Art is the number of levels of stacked chipped wood. Common items such as picture frames and small trinket boxes will typically consisting of four or five levels, with exceptional pieces extending to seven or eight. This miniature sideboard, in contrast, has up to twelve levels at various places (notably the center heart at the crown) and eight otherwise.
Fig. 10-58: Miniature Tramp Art Sideboard
Lest I leave you with the impression that all miniatures make sense to the extent that they model something you’re likely to find full sized somewhere, consider the tramp art miniature in Figure 10-59. Now at first glance you might think that the “wagon wheel” surmounting this piece, all of which is made from cigar boxes, is a bizarre add on, think again. The back is all one piece, including that wheel. So if you ask me what its maker had in mind when he whittled away and created this chest, I’d have to tell you that I haven’t the foggiest idea. Unique certainly; bizarre as well.
Fig. 10-59: A Rather Strange Tramp Art Miniature Chest
Of all the miniatures that have passed through my hands, the one that perhaps stands at the top of the pile in terms of delicacy of design, but is nevertheless a mystery, is the walnut Victorian sideboard in Figure 10-60. The attention to detail here is unparalleled except for those miniatures made as part of an application for a patent. And while there’s no question as to its approximate age, the mystery is why or for whom it was made. Clearly, it was not intended for a child, unless the child wasn’t expected or allowed to play with it. I suppose it could have been a gift for some Robber Barron’s daughter as an accent to her doll collection. However, my best guess – and it’s only a guess – is that it was made for an exposition (most likely the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876) by a furniture manufacturer to display the company’s craftsmanship. If that’s the case, then it falls into the category of trade stimulator. I’ll let you form your own hypothesis, but I include it here to illustrate a miniature that is a precise replica of a full sized piece.
Fig 10-60: Ca 1870 Walnut Miniature Sideboard
Baskets: One final and giant category for this chapter is that of baskets, so to whittle things down I’ll exclude Native American baskets from discussion because I know little about them and because they truly are a separate category that should not be confused with ash split baskets made by European folk. With that said, the top of the heap is unambiguous: Nantucket baskets, especially those made before WWI such as th eone shown in Figure 10-61a. Supremely crafted with splint or reed that is often no wider than 1/8 of an inch, they represent the pinnacle of basketry once Native American craftsmanship is excluded (which is a hell of an exclusion since I’ve seen Native American baskets that hold water!). And especially valued are those that are signed (insofar as I know, most if not all early Nantucket basket makers are well-identified). However, as with baskets generally, condition is of supreme importance here. Take a swing-handled 10” diameter Nantucket that’s in perfect condition and you could easily be looking at a $1,500 to $2,000 price tag. But break a couple of splints or lose some of the wrapping from around the rim and, regardless of how unobtrusive the damage, you’ve dropped into the $500 to $800 range. The identity of the maker is also critical and can overcome some degree of damage since repairs are always possible. I recall in particular a signed Nantucket I found some time ago at an estate sale (Figure 10-61a), but you’d think someone had given one side of it a hard kick with their boot (and perhaps they had). In other words, the basket was a wreck and had it not been a Nantucket it would have been utterly worthless. But it was a Nantucket, it was somewhat uncommonly large, it was stencil signed, it was 19th century and it was priced at only $20. So what the heck, as a gamble it beat feeding that Andrew Jackson into a five cent Las Vegas slot machine. What I learned subsequently was that had it been in better condition, it would have been valued in the $2,000 to $3,500 range. The basket clearly qualified, then, as a tragedy. But still a tragedy of value to someone with the skill to repair it and I eventually sold it to a collector for something in the area of $700. Not bad for a wreck! Nevertheless, unless you can find another $20 badly damaged 19th century signed Nantucket, stay way from anything but a basket in perfect or near perfect condition.
Fig. 10-61a: Typical Nantucket Swing Handled Basket ca 1900
Fig. 10-61: A Somewhat Less Than Perfect “$20” Nantucket Basket
Once we leave the ocean (Nantucket is an island for those of you who slept thru geography class), two basket forms stand out – swing handled and buttocks. The descriptions of both are evident in their labels, but as with Nantuckets, condition is paramount. Collectors simply don’t like damage, and since, unlike a rare signed Nantucket, collectors tolerate preciously little in the way of apologies, I pretty much stay away from any that aren’t perfect. Collectors might tolerate a broken splint or two, but not missing split. Also, as with graniteware, size isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, I’d even have to say that ceteris paribus the smaller the better. To see what I mean and gain some sense of values, consider the four baskets in Figure 10-62. Beginning with the basket in the upper left, the form here is quite ordinary, but its in perfect condition and has a superb patina – precisely what collectors value in an unpainted basket. The basket in the upper right is a miniature. It has the more desirable buttocks form but lacks patina – unsurprising, since it’s more a whimsy than something that would actually see any use. The lower right basket is rather boring in form and crude in construction, but has a good patina and exhibits no damage. Finally there’s the monster in the lower left. So how would I order their value? All I can give you is my preference, and at the top would be the first basket considered – the upper left. My preference order thereafter is to simply proceed in clockwise manner so that the monster is ranked last. I appreciate that it’s doubtlessly less common than the basket to its right, but what exactly do you do with a basket that’s two feet across and a bit more than that in height – storage for dirty socks?
Fig. 10-62: Comparing Four 19th C Ash Split Baskets
All four of the baskets in Figure 10-62 share one thing: none are painted. Collectors, though, especially prize painted baskets provided the paint has some minimal age (since, like firkins et al, they weren’t painted at birth). So if you can find one with a good coat of early paint (excluding Nantuckets – people DON’T and SHOULDN’T paint those), take any price you see for an unpainted one and multiply by 3. I should note something though that has always surprised me about baskets. While a coat of paint applied to a firkin or pantry box in, say, the 1930s doesn’t count for much, people in the market for painted baskets seem much more tolerant of younger paint. Consider the two baskets in Figures 10-63 and 10-64. In both cases I’d guess that the oil-based paint on them is no older than 1920, yet they both sold on eBay for a considerable premium over what their unpainted versions might have realized. For firkins, pantry boxes and wood mixing bowls, in contrast, people apply such a premium only if there’s the promise of the paint being at least late 19th century (and a greater premium still if it’s early dry milk paint). Frankly, I’m not sure why this is the case. Perhaps it’s because paint was more commonly applied to things other than baskets so there’s a lower expectation of early paint on them. I’ll simply have to leave speculation to others, allowing for the possibility that my experiences are not universal.
Fig. 10-63: $50 Without Paint, $150 With Paint
Fig. 10-64a: $75 Without Paint, $175 With Paint
Fig. 10-64b: $40 without Paint, $150 with Paint
Because it is far less common than a 20th century coat of oil or latex, early 19th century paint on a basket can compensate for other problems. Consider the basket in Figure 10-65a – a nice enough gathering basket form with an absolutely fantastic coat of early paint and a patina to kill for (well, ok, maybe not kill … maim perhaps). But take a look at Figure 10-65b. Yup, that’s the bottom and some serious damage. For an unpainted basket or one with a 20th century coat of paint, the damage is devastating in terms of value – enough so that I might even pass on it at a flea market or estate sale. It is, nevertheless, repairable (see Figure 10-65c), but don’t think you can duplicate the paint and corresponding patina. An art restorer perhaps, but not me. So does the damage and subsequent repair hurt value? Well, yes .. of course it does. But the paint and patina compensate at least in part – indeed, a considerable part. Undamaged and you might be able to nail a collector for upwards of $750 here – paint and patina of this quality is rare. Repaired and you’re probably down to a number like $450 – a significant discount to be sure, but it remains one heck of a basket and surely of interest to even a serious collector.
Fig. 10-65a: 19th C basket with 19th C paint and patina
Fig. 10-65b: An unfortunate apology
Fig. 10-65c: Basket repaired