I have often been tempted to photograph an antique I myself have found, and last week, returning to Santa Barbara from an appointment in Calabasas, I stopped at an industrial park in Camarillo, home to a tiny, dusty, fascinating, junk shop Treasures Second Hand Store. Behind the owner’s desk stood two 1950’s refrigerators, old crank tub washers, and 2 vintage stoves: I was hooked.
I purchased this copper sconce, which has no markings, no authorship to be found. Yet it has the quality of early 20th century Arts & Crafts handwork. Yet at first glance, one thinks Mexican 1980’s work. But the edges are rolled into a finish, the piece hangs straight, and the copper repoussé work is hand (burin) tooled and chased. The iconography of a blooming thistle is also telling: this weed, which can grow up to 8’ tall, with its jagged leaves and sharp spikes, is the national flower of Scotland, where the Arts & Crafts tradition of copper repoussé originated.
The Scottish Arts & Crafts movement (1887-99) was centered at The Glasgow School of Art, founded by Charles Rennie MacKintosh, Herbert MacNair, and sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald (the “Four”). From this school was birthed “The Glasgow Style,” incorporating Scottish icons like the Scottish cabbage rose, Celtic tombstone motifs, thistles, and sprites or goblin mainly in the female form.
In fact, women were taken seriously as artists, and known in the group for fabulous repoussé copper panel designs with Scottish motifs, which were fitted into door panels, pieces of Arts & Crafts furniture, hardware and used on decorative objects. In the first years of the 20th century artistic women, such as the metalworkers Margaret & Mary Gilmour, rose to prominence. Essential reading is the Glasgow Girls by Jude Burkhauser, about this formative era in design. Love, however, did not change the importance of Glasgow women in the arts: the sisters Margaret & Frances MacDonald married “The Glasgow School’s” co-founders: Margaret to Charles Rennie MacKintosh, Frances to Herbert MacNair.
In England, such partnerships in art and architecture were unheard of in the Art Worker’s Guild of the era. Mrs. Albert Waterhouse established the Yattendon Metalworking class in 1890 for women to learn copper repoussé work. She penned the designs, derived from Scottish foliage and fauna, paid for her student’s supplies and materials, and helped sell the works through the Scottish Home Arts & Industries Association and through Liberty & Co. in London.
I have a feeling my sconce was born in Mrs. Waterhouse’s Yattendon School: this is because it is NOT signed. Such a fine piece by a male artist of the era in Arts and Crafts design would have been signed! Although women were recognized as working artists, few women’s pieces were signed or recorded.
And of course, there’s the image of the Scottish thistle itself on the piece, the symbol of Scotland’s highest chivalric order, founded by James V. The image appeared on Scottish coins as early as 1470, and entered Scotland’s coat of arms in the early 16th century. Legend has it that upon the 13th century Battle of Largs, the Vikings under King Haakon attacked the Scots at night, creeping in barefoot to an ambush. The Scots were saved by the thistle, which sorely provoked Norse screams of pain, waking the Scots. The oldest national flower known, the Scottish motto beneath is “Wha daur meddle wi me?,” or “Who dares to meddle with me?” in American English; the ‘proper’ English translation is “No one provokes me with impunity.” I had the great fortune to study art and architecture in Scotland, and delighted in the still extant Glasgow Arts and Crafts Tea Rooms, all in the Glasgow Style, as well as a visit to the beautiful Hill House in Rhu, Dunbartonshire, once owned by my son’s father’s family, commissioned in the Glasgow Style. The Arts and Crafts tradition of course is still very alive in Scotland today.
The value, if I am right, and the sconce is Scottish Glasgow style Arts & Crafts, created by a notable female artist in 1900, is $2,000.
J.H. sends me a ceramic fumigation pot, alongside a photo of her grandmother's house, in the first quarter of the 20th century set in an unincorporated area of West Covina. The house was located in a working class neighborhood between San Bernardino Road and the Pacifica Electric Street Car tracks. She remembers the train running between West Covina and Los Angeles. Grandma Grace was involved in the citrus industry, like so many entrepreneurs of the early 20th century.
Picture what you know about the industry in those days, and your vision will be informed by images of pretty toddlers and healthy young ladies picking the oranges off a green tree in a beautiful grove. These images say "this is the good life in the Golden State!" And the orange was the symbol of that life.
J.H.'s grandmother would have been familiar with the trappings of a citrus ranch, of which this pot was one, yet some of these tools are unrecognizable today. Grandma Grace would have recognized the picker's bag made of canvas and leather, her citrus clippers, her sizing rings, the field boxes, the belching smudge pots, along with J.H.'s little inherited fumigation pot. J.H. sends me Grandma Grace's front porch pictured in West Covina, lined with these pots, drilled in their bases to become planters.
Daniel Boule's 2014 book The Orange and the Dream of California traces the California citrus industry to 1870 with the introduction of the Washington Naval from Brazil.
The entrepreneur and freethinking spiritualist Eliza Tibbets bought a few Washington Navels as an experiment and planted a few of these trees. Noting how well they grew, she began selling cuttings, eventually making a small fortune. However, not all was prosperous and healthy in the industry, as J.H.'s 12-inch pot might have told us if it could talk.
J.H. writes that she recalls the pride of the early fruit growers, angling for the best looking, untouched fruit with which to bring to market. Perfection meant the eradication of pests that would eat the fruit and damage leaves. This is where her fumigation pot came into play back in the 1900's.
Workers in her grandmother's 10-acre orchard in Covina would cover orange trees with huge canvas tents, wielding long hook-poles, and then weighing these tents down with sandbags. The aim was to kill off the insect called the Icerya purchasi, the aptly named cottony cushion scale, which defaced the fruit. These little pillows of white attached themselves to a leaf and coated it with waxy fibers that protected their egg sac.
Here was the early 20th Century remedy for this disfigurement of the fruit: liquid cyanide was shot into these ceramic handled pots and pushed under the tree tents to sit and off-gas for several days. And someone had to handle the toxic chemical.
In and around those tents was hell to breathe. Cyanide gas caused respiratory and heart failures, not to mention paralysis, liver and kidney failure, and seizures.
J.H.'s Uncle Ray, hired as a young boy, was employed to pull the canvas tents off the trees after they had a few days of cyanide exposure. J.H. writes that Uncle Ray's boyhood coveralls would shred off his frame because of chemical rot. J.H. thinks that Uncle Ray's early death had something to do with the fumigation pots.
Happily, when cyanide was eventually banned, Grandma Grace turned the glazed ceramic pots into sword fern vessels living on her front porch in Covina. The year was 1940, when a gang of Covina boys gathered around those famous 40 foot tall Washingtonia Palms, which made Covina famous, and shot their torches into the top fronds. A tree close to Grandma Grace's orchard barn caught fire when a burning palm frond torched it. Inside was all the orchard equipment and her treasured Model T.
The fumigation pot owned by J.H. here in Santa Barbara is the last survivor of the orchard, and J.H. says it has lived for 100 years. Grandma Grace's pot is definitely a vintage California ceramic, very collectable, and its simple style and coloring is associated with the most famous objects of early 20th Century California pottery.
Pottery was, along with oranges, a California specialty. Notable potteries of the era were Gladding McBean, and Bauer, for example. However, the hole drilled into the bottom devalues the vessel, but certainly not the story. I would say a collector of California orchard equipment and vintage California pottery would pay $300. I bet I will hear from a few willing buyers for J.H.'s pot.
LS sends me a photograph of a dough box, which, in its heyday (1850) would have weekly felt the weight of “three pecks” of flour to make the family’s bread. Don’t know what three pecks of flour is? About 27 liters or 7 US gallons. And before you say, wow, that’s a load of flour, bread was your family staple. Especially if you had farmhands or household servants. A peck was purchased in a huge sack, and the baker-woman of the household hefted that sack and dumped it into this object, pictured here, called alternatively the dough box, bin, trough; with a cover or lid, called the kneading trough or tray.
You see LS’s box stands on legs. Tabletops in kitchens weren’t the best places to knead dough: they fluctuate in temperature and could be drafty. If her flour has legs, the baker-woman may move it into a more temperate part of the house. In winter, the flour must be warm, so the dough box was part of your household interior. Once the yeast was added directly in the box, the mixture had to stay warm for it to rise, perhaps overnight. The lid was a necessity: mice like dough. If you wanted a faster rise, the dough had to be dragged near the fireplace. You’ll notice the sides of the box cant down so flour does not spill, also a necessity as the process is very messy.
Next morning, your brick or stone oven had to be swept and then stoked which took hours. While that was heating, you shaped the dough into loaves, and set them on the lid of the dough box. The baker-woman carried the lid/tray close to the oven (women were strong) and she wielded a long handled shovel, called a “peel.” Notice your pizza guy; he uses a wooden peel, today’s stainless models, but in the past, long-handled in iron in the 17th century or a very long plank paddle in Rome of the 1st century. People who are learning to use the peel tell me that there’s a trick to having the dough slide without tearing into the hot oven.
Dough boxes are not just American, as in LS’s case. The finest and most expensive examples are French Provincial (1830) and those are carved in relief to the sides with baskets of flowers or wheat; the apron, which supports the box, is also carved meaningfully. A nice one will sell for upwards of $3,000, usually made of French walnut, except for the ones from Provence, which are oak.
Dough boxes in America were made of pine or poplar, or a combination of the two, and sometimes pine and oak. An early (1801) Pennsylvania pine box was usually painted with “Dutch” designs on a uniformly tinted background. Expect the good American boxes to bear traces of paint pigment such as slate gray, milk paint light blue, or red. The boxes that were stripped in the 20th century (and many were, because not many people realized almost everything was painted in the early 19th century) were stripped, ironically, to make them appear “primitive.” American Primitive furniture was a hot style in the 1980’s.
American dough boxes sometimes lift off the legged base, and at auction today sell for $200-400 without the stand. With the stand, a good American painted dough box will sell for $400-600, much less than its French Provincial counterpart. In either parts of the world, the dough box was never washed – soap could flavor the bread and water could absorb into the wood. Whatever the country, kneading dough meant bending over the dough box for hours, with the gooey dough up around your elbows. No French manicure needed.
The value of LS’s dough box is $450 today. American Rustic is not desirable. And so far, I have not discovered any fine cabinetry wooden mid-century modern dough boxes. I say this because anything mid-century is beloved in today’s market. Wonder if Charles and Ray Eames ever considered designing one?
Speaking of midcentury, the first bread maker machine comes out of mid-1980’s Japan, the Raku Raku Pan Da from the Fumai Electric Company, sold in the US as the Pak Auto Bakery model FAB-100-1. Today fast-bake bread making machines push out loaves in less than one hour without breaking your back and without dough encasing hands and arms. Packaged bread mixes are purchased with pre-measured flour and yeast, flavorings and dough conditioners: all you do is add water…what a change, but the flavor no doubt suffers.
North Carolina is known for its beautiful forests, and since the 19th century was the state known nationwide to produce serviceable wooden furniture. My son lives there now, and some of that early Primitive furniture is highly deceptive in its simplicity versus its collectible value. Southern – the original Southern American furniture is simple, functional and expensive, but not the fad in the mid 1800s. Of course rich folks then (1860’s) from the Eastern seaboard furnished their homes with French or English furniture, but the simple folks needed low-priced long lasting dressers and tables too. So North Carolina became known for their little country carpenters, both black and white, all of whom were true artisans.
Enter, in 1903, Samuel Huffman, and five entrepreneurs, who gathered together $14,000 and formed a factory of 50 carpenters called Drexel Furniture. They made low-priced simple furniture for the mid-Atlantic communities until Sam’s son took over the enterprise. By the 1950’s, the younger Mr. Huffman changed course, charged more for the same furniture but advertised the heck out of it. I enclose a pictorial sample ad which made it easy to order your loved ones furniture for Christmas, dated 1959. At the time of this ad, Huffman had 2300 workers supplying 2500 stores across the US. Suddenly, North Carolina furniture was a nationwide concern and very profitable.
Sometime around this mid-century mark, D.M.’s relatives from Santa Barbara bought a traditional oval dining set with pedestal base and splayed feet, mahogany, in the style of Duncan Phyfe (an early 19th century NY furniture maker); they also bought chairs in the English Chippendale transitional Hepplewhite style. Interesting that the American style table is usually paired with 18th century English chairs: both in the mid 20th century were considered “Early American Traditional.” In addition, the upper-middle-class loved the look. Mahogany, more expensive and harder to maintain, meant up-scale and the middle class who bought, if they could, bought maple ‘traditional’ (like my mom’s Early American Ethan Allen). And, boy, did Mom like Early American; we had spinning wheels, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, gun racks, and Williamsburg green custom-mixed paint by Sears on the walls, all this, back home in Illinois, not in Williamsburg or even Boston. We had red brick, eagle Plaster-of-Paris sculptures mounted on the paneling in the ‘family’ room, and pineapple doorknockers on the bible-paneled front door, variously painted Monticello Red or Williamsburg Green. We lived the early-American dream.
Yet Drexel was above my family, especially sets like D.M.’s Drexel, which, in a stroke of advertising genius, was raised above other Drexel lines by naming itself the “Travis Court” line. This was costly in 1959: a Travis Court mahogany chest of drawers would run your family $77.50, a china cabinet, $188.50, a vanity with a pop-up mirror $104.50; a server $89.50, and each side chair $22.50 – and those armed for the master would run you $28.50. Rest assured that those were upper-middle-class prices in 1959.
Back home in North Carolina, Huffman expanded Drexel Furniture by buying Heritage Furniture Co. in 1960 and then they began to manufacture dorm and library furniture, dumbing down their former expensive woods. So much so, that Drexel came to the attention of a former competitor, US Plywood Co., who purchased Huffman’s company in 1969. Management there jumped on the stylistic bandwagon of the Mediterranean style (mostly unsalable today) with such looks as Italian Provincial, French Provincial (little girls’ bedrooms in the 1960’s, usually pickled white), Tuscan Villa, and the most flamboyant Hollywood Regency. The latter is highly saleable today, at a cross between the sloping degenerate lines of French Deco and Liberace’s master bedroom. The look is what I term ‘early brothel’ and desirable, filling the magazines and Palm Springs boutiques.
Drexel today has gone the way of all lucky capitalistic family start-ups; one of the largest furniture manufacturers since 1980, Masco Co., purchased Drexel Heritage in 1986, which expanded Huffman’s corporate model, went on to furnish hotels, state departments, and government offices. Drexel is located today in High Point, NC with 10 factories around NC and 1300 workers. The value of D.M.’s dining set? $800 total: ‘Traditional’ from the mid 20th century is one of the poorest selling style today.
The week before the Thomas fire roared into Santa Barbara County, a new client asked me for an appointment for an appraisal for insurance purposes. On Dec. 5,, my photographer John and I visited the client in a beautiful Summerland home. By Dec. 7, I had a rough idea of the value of his family's 20 beautiful German Expressionist paintings. By Dec. 9, our office building was evacuated, and I had to rush away, taking only my computer. On Dec. 10, John and I were evacuated from our house. The client with the gorgeous collection of rare oil paintings was ALSO evacuated, and we all left Santa Barbara, with so many other folks.
Evacuated, I worked through Dec. 11 to help get my client's appraisal completed. I worried about his family's treasured paintings, originally curated by a great-grandparent.
Getting the paintings out of his Summerland home on the night of Dec. 10 was fast and furious. He told me that he grabbed blankets off the bed and towels off the bathroom rack, wrapped all 20 canvases -- and threw them in his SUV. At this time, we believe they are undamaged, but he wonders about smoke residue, now and into the near future.
Since early December clients have asked me many questions:
Even if you do not have an appraisal of your valued objects by a certified appraiser, source your own photos of the objects. Dedicated photos of those objects are important proofs of ownership, and relative condition before damage can usually be ascertained thanks to digital photography.
Take photos after the fire has left its smoke residue, sooner rather than later. Take those photos in raking light: Shine a flashlight to the sides of the canvas. This casts an oblique angle to catch views of the traces of particles of soot hiding in the texture of the paint surface. Use your computer to blow the images up, and prepare to be astounded.
Do not touch, wipe or attempt to clean or dust paintings. Oil is a living medium and absorbs atmospheric particles. Even the softest touch can accelerate that absorption. Take the painting to a conservator, trained in emergency response, to get an assessment report, a plan of action, and a quote of what it will cost. The conservator will want to see a smoke-damaged painting as soon as possible because of the damage from the acidity of soot. His condition report is essential for an insurance claim. Based on the condition report, an assessment of restoration/repair charges can be estimated; save that paperwork for an insurance claim.
If a painting has damage to the point which requirs a major repair, the market value of a work may decrease. This is called "loss of value." Loss of value is a hypothetical estimation. Of course, you love your work of art and would never sell it, but once repaired, the value if sold would be less in the eyes of the market. The loss of value of a piece in dollars can often be negotiated in conversation with your insurer. To determine loss of value work with a professionally certified fine art appraiser.
Cleaning, often thought to be part of life after a fire, takes on dangerous overtones when it comes to fine art.
Grime, soot, dust and unknown particles must be removed for aesthetic and preservation reasons, but also because that accumulation is often a weighty load for the canvas to support. This extra tension adds to the vulnerability of the paint below. The acid and soot can break down canvas fibers. Skilled conservators, when cleaning, work in small sections of the painting to relieve surface tension of the overall canvas, paint and varnish. Therefore, you see this is no task for an amateur.
My client from Summerland who evacuated with his paintings left behind his great-grandmother's 18th-century furniture. The patina of this furniture has not been touched in almost 300 years, and the marketplace loves original finishes on valuable antique furniture.
Clean that old wood furniture that has sat in that smoky house with two things ONLY: an old soft 100 percent wool sock and a can of beeswax. Use NOTHING else. Avoid vacuums, blowers, spray polishes and anything that forces soot into smaller crannies, where the acid can eat away at the wood and glues.
Finally, a word on rehanging your work of art. Now is the time to rethink how one hangs valuable works. As you might have noticed when you grabbed the painting off the wall to evacuate, a simple nail and hook is not sufficient.
Look into two great new hanging methods used by MOMA and other great galleries. For security purposes, I love the Ryman hanger that grips paintings to the wall. If an intruder wants that painting, a Ryman hanger will thwart a thief who is used to lifting a painting up and over the hook.
Clients often invest in Lucite boxes for very high-end art after a fire. Before you think of this, speak to a good framer. Sometimes Lucite contains chemicals that can damage certain works on paper.
Lighting is an issue when works are boxed. Works do not like airless containers and refracted light. Consider the old-fashioned way of glazing all mediums of artwork: under glass, in a supporting frame, with a fillet bumper, and an open dust-covered back.
While we hope there won't be another fire, for future emergencies, remember to transport works of art in an upright position supported by the bottom of the frame -- being ever mindful of the attached hardware. My Summerland client was wise to wrap his paintings. Oil on canvas is an extremely resilient medium; however, a puncture wound is the hardest repair to accomplish and will always result in loss of value. More works are damaged in transport than by soot itself.
C. from Santa Barbara has an old violin bearing a paper label in the interior of the waist behind one of the F holes. I am not a violin expert, but my research should start C. on her journey in the right direction. Her next stop will be one of the large auction houses. Sotheby's, for example, refers musical instrument inquiries to its consultants Ingles & Hayday, a specialist auction house for only musical instruments. There is no charge for the experts to look at a photograph or two, since C. might eventually be interested in selling.
The label reads "Joseph Guarnerius fecit Cremonae." Yes, THAT Guarnerius (1698-1740), called "del Gesu" (for the Christian cross after his name on his labels). All Italian names of great violin makers used Latin versions. Some of the world's best violins come from del Gesu's workshop, 1730-40, and critics note how asymmetric, artistic and acoustically astounding these beauties are. A favorite del Gesu violin is Paganini's "Cannon," made in 1742 and owned by the people of Genoa, Italy, who loan it out to worthy violinists. An average Guarnerius original violin can set you back $1 million.
Most violins labeled Guarnerius are not original to the Master del Gesu in the 17th century and are, instead, simply trade instruments. That means they are factory or assembly line instruments made for export between 1870-1930 from Germany, Czechoslovakia or France. The vast majority of trade instruments featured a facsimile label of the very best violin makers of the 17th century. I have seen numerous labels for Stradivarius, Amati and Guarnerius. These labels often make people very excited. I cannot tell you how many calls I receive letting me know that someone has just found a Stradivarius.
C.'s violin has an engraved name on the peg box below the scroll, "Imperial Conservatory," with the initials MB (or in Cyrillic MV) below. This is the mark of the Moscow Conservatory, co-founded in 1866 as the Moscow Imperial Conservatory by Nikolai Rubinstein and Prince Nikolai Troubetzkoy. Tchaikovsky was appointed professor of theory and harmony at its opening; his name is now adopted into the official name of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. This violin was made for the students of the conservatory.
Wait, C. might say, the label gives a date of 1726! Again, these trade violins bear facsimile labels. Reverb, an online seller of violins, sold an Imperial Conservatory violin bearing a paper label with a date of 1729. C.'s violin is similar. Reverb sold its Imperial Conservatory Guarnerius for $1,000 with bow and case. Moreover, it was made for the Conservatory after its opening in 1866.
Connoisseurs, however, need to hear C.'s violin's sound, which depends on the shape, the wood of its construction, the thickness of this wood, and the depth of the varnish. It is said that wood and varnish improve the sound with age. I notice that C.'s violin has a two-piece back, which some people actually favor over the more beautiful one-piece back. This is because a single cut of wood is more apt to "bow" over the years. The sound of the instrument is what matters to the market, as well as condition.
C. asks about violins that purport to be "handmade." A label stating "handmade" is perhaps a misnomer. If a violin maker crafts a violin by hand, there is no need for a label, because that is how the finest violins continue to be made — by hand!
C., just because your violin is old does not make it a great violin. Many of the old instruments have shrinkage cracks at the neck or, worse, at the bottom of the violin around the saddle, which has an anchor button (the tail pin) that takes the tension of the "pull" of the strings. A crack on the back can destroy the sound as well.
Many people do not realize that, in many cases, the bow can be even more valuable than the violin. Usually bow makers stamped their name on the frog of the bow. A C. Thomassin — Paris violin bow of Pernambuco, 1910, will run you $12,000. Look for these names: Adam, Bausch, Bazin, Bultitude, John Dalley or Fetique. These masters knew how to make a bow — and the bow is often overlooked when families find an old violin in the closet.
Although I am not a violin expert, check with Ingles & Hayday auctioneers and see if I am correct in my estimate of $1,000 for your violin.
Old folks always have the best stuff. A framed piece of sheet music on paper always hung next to Mom's piano, given to her by my Aunt Ann. The title is “The King and the Miller.” The archaic notation could be a clue to the history of this piece of old music.
Under a few of the bars of music, we see a fraction 6/5. The song is written as given in 6/8 time. So what is this ‘5’? I discovered the 5 indicates a ‘droning 5th’; meaning in the lively key of G major of this song, the bass would “drone” under particularly 6/5 annotated bars, singing a “D” note.
That droning sound, I remembered, having been married to the tune of a bagpipe, is typical of certain country-folk instruments, notably the bagpipe or musette. The sound of that drone to the audience would signal “peasant” music.
However, the elegant engraving style of the illustration over the music is anything but unsophisticated. And the words of the song deride the Courtly Courtier’s life: “(this – the Miller) Clown in his dress may be honest’r by far, than a Courtier who struts in a Garter and Star.” The composer throughout the words and the lilt of the song is meaning to prick the nobility, but upon which occasion?
This song came out in a theater piece called The King and The Miller of Mansfield, first performed on Drury Lane on 29th January 1737. The musician and librettist was a Mr. Arne, often a composer for the Musical Theatre of the second quarter of the 18th Century, and the song might have been performed by his songstress wife Cecelia who was noteworthy for her “fine shake” (i.e. trill)!
The song marks the beginning of the successful years of Drury Lane Theatre, and enjoyed a long and popular life after the run of the play, appearing in George Bickham’s illustrated songbook The Musical Entertainer I of 1737.
The producer of the play The King and The Miller, Robert Dodsley, along with the composer and librettist Arne, narrowly missed future likely censorship because an Act was brewing in Whitehall and would come to fruition in 1738: government censorship of the theatre in the form of The Licensing Act of 1738. The Act was spurred on by the famous Henry Fielding’s dramatic stage farces in which he attacked Sir Robert Walpole, such as Fielding’s Pasquin of 1736. In fact, the Royal Government was becoming more and more disillusioned with London theaters in the 1730’s, such as Drury Lane and Covent Garden, where singing castrati with bawdy pantomimes were the rage.
Henry Fielding attended when performers sung this song on Mom's sheet music at Drury Lane. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended as well that January of 1737. And the show became so popular in its veiled attacks on the hoi-polloi that it ran for 35-consecutive nights to sold out boxes.
Because Mom’s sheet music is a reproduction of the 18th Century original, it's worth $50, the original would be $500. But it is a great example of how a slice of history can tell volumes, about the social climate, the political climate, the tastes of the era, what was humorous or risqué, and what would engender a guffaw. Moreover, one of the reasons the Shakers and Quakers came to this country was the ribald nature of the stage in at that time, which is a whole ‘nother story.
The year was 1962 and D.'s mom spotted a great-looking, modern-style, green-, blue- and gold-trimmed vase at Ott Hardware in Santa Barbara. She displayed it for 55 years on her mantelpiece.
When D.'s mom passed, D.'s daughter claimed the vase and tucked it into her kitchen cupboard. In an antique shop in Morro Bay, D. saw a similar piece, priced high, and sent me photos of the vase, asking if her daughter should display it again. What follows are reasons D.'s daughter might love it for its colorful history as well as its gorgeous blues and green.
Aldo Londi, artistic director at the ceramic factory Bitossi, created D.'s mom's treasured vase. Today, we call the look "retro," or mid-century modern. The history of this vase is a reflection of American taste, opening to the new modern world of design in Europe in the late 1940s, as well as to American consumerism and inspired marketing in the 1950s, celebrated in shows such as "Mad Men."
Aldo Londi was born in Montelupo, Italy, in 1911 and served as a full-time ceramicist at the age of 11. War called the young man — fighting during World War II, he was taken prisoner in South Africa and languished there until 1946 when he retired to Italy. He joined Bitossi, a firm operating in the old-style manner of Italian ceramics since 1500s in Montelupo. The Bitossi family had purchased the concern in 1871 when Guido Bitossi introduced the concept of the craft tradition, a new look, earthy and folksy. New hire Londi had met the talented designer Ettore Sottsass in the late 1940s. Together, they designed a look based on high-fired, brightly colored, faience-style glazes. Thousands of objects, including whimsical animal figures, candlesticks, lamp bases, ashtrays and cigarette boxes, clocks and canisters were produced, not to mention tableware. Often the objects have designs in abstract repeating geometric shapes pressed into the clay and overglazed.
The look has been lovingly curated back in Italy today at the Bitossi family's museum, the Bitossi Artistic Industrial Museum, managed by Vittoriano Bitossi. The museum is a member of Museimpresa, the Italian association of commercially inspired museum collections. The museum holds 7,000 objects created by Bitossi. Its most famous artist, Londi, was celebrated in 2014 with a biographical show, "Aldo Londi: A Twentieth-Century Ceramicist."
Mark Hill's book, "Alla Moda: Italian Ceramics of the 1950-1970s," credits the popularity of Londi's designs to the brilliant American tastemaker and marketing genius Irving Richards, who, early on, had an eye for Italian and Scandinavian modern. His company, Raymor, was responsible for bringing that look to the American home in the 1950s. Many have seen it in the homes of our parents or grandparents, and the millennial generation has rediscovered the look today.
Richards also had a relationship with one of my favorite American designers, Russel Wright (1904-76): He marketed Wright's most famous design, the tableware called "American Modern." I owe my start as an object whisperer to "American Modern" dinnerware. At the age of 13, I bought Northwestern University's old cafeteria china — lime green "American Modern." I had truckloads of the stuff and sold them for little profit because, at that time, the modernist look was just the look of the last generation. Today, people pay thousands for a service of 12.
So influential was Irving Richards, who brought Italian modern to the U.S. with the import of Bitossi, that the Italian government was rumored to have bestowed the Order of Knighthood upon him.
Londi's collaboration with Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) must have been formative for Londi: Sottsass was responsible for the design of the first Italian Modern mainframe computer in 1959, The Elea 9003, as he was head designer for the great Italian office machinery firm Olivetti. The tradition of great design in hardware was Sottsass' legacy. An example is his portable, colorful, plastic typewriter for Olivetti, the 1969 Valentine. His later architectural designs, worldwide, as well as his collaborations with men like Londi were celebrated in 2017 at The MET Breuer museum in New York City in the retrospective "Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical."
So D.'s mom had great taste to grab this vase back in 1962 at Ott Hardware. The site 1stdibs.com sells Britossi for thousands, especially Londi's table lamps. If D.'s daughter wants to sell this treasure, she can get more than $300, as there is a hot market for Italian modernism today. Now D.'s daughter knows to bring it out of the closet.
D.H. sends what appears to be a basket, produced in the 1990’s in Australia, a great example of “studio craft art.” Objects like this are typically innovative, ambiguous, true to ancient craft techniques, and resemble objects from both the future and the ancient past. Is D.H.’s basket ritualistic, ancient tribal art; is it made of wicker (as most baskets are), is it cast metal, is it bone, is it leather, is it ceramic, is it wood? Actually, it is all of the above. This ambiguity makes good studio craft hard to identify and difficult to sell if you are not selling it from the original gallery. There is a lack of pigeonhole-ability; such pieces are neither industrial design, nor architectural design, nor fine art design. When craft art is NOT well done, it loses a quality called ‘integrity’. The artist may have taken a shortcut that is felt in the heart; something about the artwork seems to be “wrong.” A good example of this might be Tribal Art that is “mass-produced” by non-natives.
D.H. may sell her basket. She writes me that the artists are a married couple, Tanija and Graham Carr, with an international yet niche reputation, perhaps better known today than when D.H. purchased the piece in the 90’s because of the couple’s show at “Sculpture, Objects and Fine Arts” in Chicago (a great town for studio craft). A piece like D.H.’s might be priced between $6,000-8,000. Of course, few people would reorganize D.H.’s piece for that value out of context. My suggestion to D.H. is that she get in touch with William Zimmer Gallery in Chicago to try to consign her piece, as nowhere else will she achieve its true worth.
Gallerists who represent such craft artists do not want their artist’s works to sell outside of their gallery. This is because the artist’s sales record can be easily skewed to the detriment by a rogue sale to an uninformed buyer. For example, Zimmer sells 3-pieces of Carrs’ works for $8,000 each. Then another piece appears on Craigslist because the owner has no idea how much it is worth at retail, let alone what it is or what era it is from, or even what material it is made of, or by whom. Thus, it sells for $50. The artist’s portfolio of values achieved is therefore tarnished. For such artists, a marketplace is created by force, not by chance.
D.H., however, has excellent taste; we have met and talked in my office here in SB about her life-project, which is a catalogue raisonné of the artist F.S. Church: a chronicle of his letters vis-a-vie his paintings and illustrations. Church fascinates her because, back in the late 19th to early 20th C., Church was fascinated by D.H.’s grandmother and painted and drew her often. D.H. has traced her grandmother’s beloved artist friend to a very wealthy local family who established a homestead ranch in our Central Coast hills back at the last turn of the century.
When someone has studied an artist for over 20 years, has written books about their art, this aficionado has taught herself to LOOK. D.H. has “developed an eye.” What that means is she forms her own appreciation of beauty. Exceptional shapes, unique materials, repetition of lines, and signature colors intrigue. Just one artist studied for a long period has helped her to learn how to see art.
The benefits of being able to “see” may lead to idiosyncratic purchases like this craft vessel. D.H’s “eye” is leading her heart, not the idea of what other people might think is fine art. This ability to “see” is born in a person, and then learned; the quality of “a good eye” is honed over a lifetime. Thus, when an aficionado has both the core ability to SEE and the learned ability to LOOK, that aficionado becomes a connoisseur. She has entered into a mutual contract with a beloved work of art. That contract is a willing, mutual “state of creativity.”
J.H. of Santa Barbara owns a handled copper or brass tray passed down to her from her grandmother, who arrived in Portland, Ore., in the 1890s from Odessa in the Ukraine. I can only speculate on why J.H.'s grandmother chose Portland as her home in the New World. Perhaps she was one of the young Jews who founded New Odessa, created in 1883 between Roseburg and Ashland, settling a utopian community called "Am Olam." This was a communal, socialist group dedicated to farming who ran from turmoil in the Old Country.
The community of 50 disbanded in 1892. Many moved to Portland and began a tradition of the city being a center for Jewish immigrants on the West Coast. Southwest Portland welcomed immigrants, becoming the central hub of the Jewish community.
In 1901, the United States office of "Industrial Removal" endeavored to locate immigrants to other cities besides overpopulated New York; around 1,000 immigrants came to Portland, joining J.H.'s grandmother, who brought this tray with her. This is the only object J.H. has from her grandmother.
Ironically, the man behind her grandmother's own relocation to the New World has his picture stamped as a hallmark on the underside of the tray. The hallmark represents Tsar Alexander III (1845-94). Upon assuming the throne in 1881, Alexander enacted new laws restricting Jewish movement, leading to pogroms and anti-Semitic propaganda. Two million Jews fled the Russian empire between 1881 and 1910, and half of these fled to the U.S. This mark could be a factory mark, but as it has the profile head typical of the era's hallmarks, I'm using it to date the piece.
The hallmark on J.H.'s tray is an example of a new system of marking semi-precious metals, called the "Kokoshnik" mark, instigated in 1896 by Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918). These marks show a head in profile (dates can be ascertained by a left or right profile). J.H.'s shows Nicholas' father, Alexander, wearing the traditional head covering of the peasant, a "Kokoshnik," thus giving the hallmark its name.
I can date the hallmark to at least 1908 because the profile faces right. Perhaps J.H.'s grandmother was given the tray as gift to her from Russia after she arrived in the 1890s. However, as this is a lowly piece of tableware, and as common objects like this have no central database for historic hallmarking, it is highly possible the tray is older. Because the tray is made of the least valuable metal, these "common metal" hallmarks were less regulated than gold or silver marks. Dating these common objects is more difficult as the specific date "touch" (the appraiser's name for a single element of a hallmark) was not required.
Brass utensils were a common object from the Old World. Yet historic brass or copper antique Judaica is not valued simply for the metal content (as is silver) but for the memories of the struggle they invoke. Bringing a valued piece from the "old" table to the "new" was part of the immigrant experience.
Jews seeking refuge from poverty and tyranny fled from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Along with the clothes on their back, many immigrants carried the family samovar or Shabbat candlesticks. In many cases, the lowly pieces that made it to the New World are all families have to remind them of the old "shtetls" (small Jewish towns) of Eastern Europe, a piece of a home never to be seen again. These villages were caught in the turmoil of the Russo-Japanese War, World War I and the Russian Revolution, not to mention the "ethnic cleansing" of the late 19th century. Many families in the New World treasure these lowly pieces as part of a family tradition. They do not have to be valuable to be a real treasure.
J.H.'s tray is the base for a long-gone samovar. Samovar trays were oval with handles. The matching samovar of brass would have been topped by a matching little brass teapot. The height of samovar production in Russia was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although they were often made of iron, brass or copper, the best of them were constructed of bronze and highly decorated. I wonder where J.H.'s grandmother's family samovar ended up, as well as the little teapot.
J.H.'s tray is not valuable price-wise, appraised at $75, but the story of its journey and the reasons for its journey are invaluable. Amazing that the hallmark's pictured image, and the tray's precious history, are intertwined. Happy Hanukkah, J.H.!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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