K.K. sends me a tiny enameled tin suitcase in red with white trim, lined inside with beige and silver stars; a case for a toddler-shaped doll dressed in a plaid skirt, a white coat and matching hat. On the other side of the case hang a pink taffeta spring gown and big straw hat, a white pinafore and red hat, and other outfits from the 1950’s. A drawer opens to reveal clothing of light pink and baby blue.
This is a “Ginny” doll, named after creator Jennie Graves’ oldest daughter, Virginia. Graves created the Ginny line in the 1940’s from her storefront in Summerville, MA. K.K.’s doll dates from the 1950’s, as Graves’ dolls developed from composition (a blend of wood pulp and composite in the 30’s and 40’s) to hard plastic. The first plastic Ginny dolls were marked “Vogue” on their backs: I put K.K.’s in the mid 1950’s.
Readers of my column know I have “doll” trepidation: I dislike faces that seem life-like; I suffer from the ‘uncanny valley syndrome’ in which a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of revulsion or unease. Even more intently do I feel that unease with the “Ginny” line of dolls: Graves dressed her toddlers in very adult clothing, stylish, sexy; heels and handbags, undergarments (sometimes garter belts), jewelry and spectacles. The fabrics were lush: velvet, lace, brocade – with trim and flounces. The packages read “Fashion Leaders in Doll Society.” Every fashionable toddler-woman had a dog accessory; a little stuffed terrier made by the famous Steiff Company.
As the Ginny line grew, by 1953 Graves’ doll factory boasted sales of over $2 million and by 1957, $5 million. The line persisted until 1995, purchased in 1986 by the R. Dakin Company. Tonka Toys was the first purchaser outside the Graves family in 1972, and the dolls began to be made in China. In the 21st C, the line was re-acquired by the Vogue Doll Company; and collectors, who love a good doll convention, acquired at the United Federation of Doll Clubs’ convention a 2010 Souvenir Ginny, created by designer Alice Leverett.
I had the honor of viewing a collection of sculpted prototype doll heads created by a former Mattel doll designer in the 1960’s, truly fine, albeit macabre, sculptures. In 2012, designer Leverett created another convention souvenir Ginny doll “Just Me.” Grown women collectors at the convention purchased “Just Me’s” wardrobe, in which they delighted in various costumes, tiny tea tables and chairs with a tiny stuffed bear for the doll’s tea party. The doll collector never fails to astound me.
K.K.’s relative, who played with Ginny, might have also played with other members of Ginny’s “family.” Vogue designers in the 1950’s capitalized on the popularity of child representation in adult attire: Ginny had a twin brother and sister, Steve and Eve, who dressed in identical plaid outfits. Ginny’s older sister, doll Jill, hung out with doll Jeff; they dug rock and roll, as exhibited by their Beatnik outfits. Jill even had holes in her earlobes for pierced earrings, considered wild in 1958.
Further scary facts about the Ginny dolls: brows and lashes are apt to turn green in sunlight. A late model was the ‘bent knee walker’ as opposed to the ‘straight leg walker.’ The most valuable outfits date from 1951-1953 and were tagged; desirable means a complete ensemble of dress, hat, shoes, parasol, etc. The exception are two favorite 1954 outfits (note these names), “Tiny Miss Pineapple” and the “Whiz Kids Lounging Outfit.” KK should check: “sleep eyes” which roll back in the head might be the rare “root beer” color that over time leaked into the whites of the eye, creating a special (horrific) effect. In the mid-1960’s Ginny had costumes from two series: “Fairytale” (think a suggestive “Little Bo Peep”) and “Far Away Lands” (think a Belly Dancing costume on a four year old).
My mother has said that the 1950’s were an era in which females had a certain prescribed niche in the family, and presented a front in support of society’s niche, if they were to find husbands, rear families, decorate a house. Did little 1950’s era girls long to grow up fast, or did their elders, who purchased the Ginny doll for them, foist adult 1950’s values on little girls? Probably both: by 1957, Vogue Doll Company was the largest doll manufacturer in America. K.K.’s doll and trousseau is worth $250, lowish because the doll has been played with and there’s still plenty of Ginnys around.
C.B. has a quartet of engravings, dated 1864, a commemoration of four leaders, often called "The Peacemakers." These works on paper all have condition issues like water damage and foxing, which occurs when the backing of the paper is acidic wood or, worse yet, cardboard.
What a moniker for American Civil War generals, "peacemakers." The Southerners didn't think so. Take William Tecumseh Sherman, who’s quoted as saying "War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."
One of the other "peacemakers," General Philip H. Sheridan, whose engraving is owned by C.B., said, "Reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life."
Not to mention fellow "peacemaker" Ulysses S. Grant, who said, "Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on."
C.B.'s quartet is completed with an engraving of a real peacemaker, Lincoln, with Union leaders, by John Chester Buttre (1821-93) and designed by William Momberger (1829); Barr and Young took the original photos. The engravings were published by JC Buttre at 48 Franklin St., New York City, in 1864. At the head of the titles are facsimile signatures of the four men.
Engravings of American Civil War personalities were popular after the war in Northern states, and the glorious battle scenes that adorn the borders of these portraits belie the slaughter that these generals engendered. Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of Tennessee converged on Vicksburg on the Mississippi, trapping the city and the Confederates under Lt. Gen. John Pemberton. The six-week campaign was waged for control of the great river. The Union victory, one of the most brilliant in the civil war, saw 37,273 dead (4,910 Union and 32,363 Confederate), 29,784 were wounded or captured and 110,000 forces were engaged. After the Vicksburg victory, the Confederacy was virtually split in half by the dominance of Union control of the Mississippi. Grant was appointed General in Chief of the Union armies. Later, his fame was his springboard into the presidency from 1869-1877.
The Confederate President Jefferson Davis' plantation was just south of Vicksburg; he must have winced when the Mississippi Fleet Naval Commander David D. Porter, Sherman and Grant toasted the Confederate surrender on the USS Blackhawk on July 4, 1863. For that reason, Vicksburg did not celebrate Independence Day for 81 years; the city of Vicksburg's ruined buildings forced civilians to live in caves for protection. However, beautiful scenes of Vicksburg decorate the borders of Grant's portrait. Such is the romantization of war.
In his engraving, Grant faces left in his uniform; Union troops fight on land top right, a naval battle is engraved top left. At bottom left, Confederate General John C. Pemberton and Grant discuss the terms of surrender while a white flag waves; on the right, troops move through the river terrain; overhead, a hot air balloon conducts surveillance. Tellingly, at the very bottom center we see two expired soldiers, out of the almost 40,000 dead.
Although C.B. has four "Peacemakers," the original suite would have been sold containing seven portraits: Lincoln and his Generals Porter, Farragut, Sherman, Thomas, Grant and Sheridan. Many versions of these seven Union luminaries were produced post-war and hung in parlors, but not Southern parlors. It would take a long time for the Southern states to even acknowledge Union victory let alone buy portraits of Union generals. Thus, C.B.'s relative who owned these was a Northerner for sure, and perhaps a New Yorker as this was the center of Buttre's publishing concern. Many of these, however, were ordered by mail as a subscription, and eagerly paid for over months.
Once highly prized, these portrait engravings are of little value as works of art. C.B. might try a civil war museum, however. Most single portraits of these generals sell for $100 to $150 each, but the condition of C.B.'s pieces is poor, so hers would fetch less.
John Chester Buttre's work as a steel plate engraver and lithographer extended to more than 3,000 American personalities, including a young and fetching Martha Washington in a billowing gown beneath a vine-covered tree. Buttre didn't stop with American portraits; he executed historical figures Mary Queen of Scots, William Shakespeare, as well as a few Confederate soldiers, like Jefferson Davis. In his day, he was revered, but today his engravings are seen as beneath the early photos of the greats he reproduced.
P.J. from Carpinteria writes to me that during the tragedies of the last few months, she "lost control" of her household. "I'm now feeling like I need a checklist on how to research what I should keep; I need to be in control of a more streamlined house. Please write me a valuations checklist!! I need a guide for furniture, silver, glass, porcelain and books."
So I wrote P.J. a checklist, covering what most of us keep in a home, to help determine the value of objects. Here's what to look for to determine value:
"Brown" furniture is the industry term for antique dressers, tables and chairs of British and American provenance; even if these are circa 1840, and handmade, the market is not strong. Even less strong is furniture that was not handmade; mass production of furniture was in full swing by the 1850s. Still, handmade is a good starting point for valuation research, especially if the piece is American and not English (American pieces generally sell for more pre-1820s). Check for evidence of "handmade" by feeling the bottoms of furniture pieces for hand-planning marks. If you see circular saw marks, the piece was probably mass-produced in the mid-19th century, and not valuable.
If the piece is 20th century, check for maker's labels on top inside drawers; hope to see Kreiss, Baker, Marge Carson or Knoll, to name a few. These have salability. Check www.p4a.com for values. Don't use 1st Dibs, or any other site that advertises prices they HOPE to achieve. Use only consummated sales to determine value.
Art is valued by the artist's name; use a site like www.ArtPrice.com, which gives signature possibilities even if you have only part of a name. Or send photos to an auction house for an estimate at auction. There's neither charge nor obligation for this.
Everyone with grown kids knows that formal china for the table is hard to get rid of; there are really no buyers out there for full sets (for individual pieces, there's Replacements Ltd.). Your mother's and grandmother's services will have maker's names; of value are the really good names like Royal Crown Derby or Meissen. Check the pattern: If it is geometric or mid-century modern, you'll find a market. For older china, look for markings that are not names, but shapes, like a beehive. I use porcelain identification sites like Kovels.com.
Figurines like Lladro or Hummels have no value today, but to check www.prices4antiques.com, where you'll find photos of figurines under maker's names keyed to where they have sold. You'll be shocked at these prices paid.
One of the few "hot" makers of glass is the Italian mid-century Murano, and any kind of Scandinavian glass, like Kosta Boda or Orrefors. These pieces will look distinctly modern. I use David Rago Auctions for sale of this mid-century glass, or, if it's really a fine piece (think Daum, Lalique or Baccarat), Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
Steuben glass for the table is also high value, especially those modern shapes like the inverted triangle cocktail services. Lalique, especially the Art Nouveau wine glasses with nudes or seahorses as stems, are also hot. Look for both the glassmaker (you can see the name shimmer in the light under the base) and the design to determine value.
Silver is worth something by virtue of the precious metal, but silver flatware services are hard to sell, because most families have at least one in the closet. For American silver, you'll see a maker's name, and most American makers, except Tiffany and a few others, are poor sellers. European silver of the mid-20th century, is, however, hot, especially Scandinavian silver like Georg Jensen, Italian silver like Buccellati and French silverplate like Christofle or Puiforcat. To identify patterns and makers, I use 925-1000.com.
You know you have British silver of any form if you see a lion, and this site above will help with the three other marks you'll see on British silver.
Silver marks are deceiving. "Rogers 1847" is NOT old silver, for example; it is a name, and it is usually silverplate. The best test of sterling is its malleability. If you can bend a piece of flatware ever so slightly, research it for sterling.
Books marked "First Edition" may not be THE first edition but a reprint. When a book is first published, publishers generally do not know it will go into second, third or fourth printings. Books are difficult to research, but I use alibris.com or biblio.com.
SL from Santa Barbara is very sentimental about her grandmother’s wedding gown. She has sent two sets of photos, and each time she says the photos do not do it justice. A quick description: silk satin wedding gown, circa 1932 (I date it by style) with champagne satin and French lace, Renaissance style sleeves, arched (Art) Deco bias panels from midriff to mid-thigh, bias cut and trained skirt, which sits beautifully over a champagne colored bias cut slip with a VERY plunging back. Must have been a treat for her new husband to see that slip on the wedding night!
Champagne, ecru, white, beige are very NEW colors for wedding gowns, all supposed to symbolize purity. The first white gown in wedding history was worn by Queen Phillipa of England in 1406, a tunic with a cloak of white silk piped with squirrel and ermine fur. She broke the mold, choosing her own dress, as previously bride’s dresses were supposed to reflect the wealth and status and colors of their family. Weddings that required special clothing in those days were matters of judicious politics between two families (think Romeo & Juliet).
The next recorded bride to wear white, flying in the face of the status quo, was the redoubtable Mary Queen of Scots, who, on her marriage to Francis Dauphin of France, wore white in 1559. Ironically, white in the eyes of a Frenchman would have indicated that the wearer was ready for a funeral, because white was the French color of mourning. Wonder if Mary was truly all that interested in her groom?
Time online reports the AVERAGE price paid for an American wedding gown in 2015 was $1357. In addition, the average gown is one of the cheapest garments to manufacture because 75% were marketed without sleeves, one of the most difficult elements of the gown to custom tailor. I much prefer the Native American Hopi tradition. The bride required that her new husband sit at a loom and weave her wedding garment.
Speaking of the sleeveless bridal gown, covering a woman’s shoulders is something one must do in many traditional places of worship. The concept of marriage in the West is such that ancestral rules might not apply; here again contrasted with the Northern California Klamath Tribe, whose brides acknowledged not only their ancestors, but the four corners of the world, by wearing a gown of four colors: white for the east, blue for the south, yellow for the west and black for the north.
The tradition of white was made into a Western cultural fad by the very much in love Queen Victoria when she married Albert of Saxe Coburg in 1840. That blessed event coincided with the dawn of photography, and every bride in all of the British Empire got her hands on a photo of that gown. After 1840, white was the color of The Gown.
This contrasts with the continuous wearing of RED in the East, which is considered auspicious. Even if a Chinese bride is dressed in white during some part of her wedding day, she will change for good luck into red sometime along the ordeal. Which makes me wonder: why white? Traditionally, in thousands of years of art history, if an artist wants to emphasize innocence, loyalty and purity, he will paint a woman in a blue gown: think of the mandala around the Virgin of Guadalupe. Blue should be the color of purity if we think of the heavens. However, the dour Scandinavians never caught the white wedding bug until recently: BLACK was the color of the bridal gown for years. Matching perhaps the Finnish weather?
I think about the groom’s outfit, which generally IS black. We don’t worry about his color bringing bad luck to the union. Once visiting my mother in Chicago, at Lord & Taylor we witnessed a mom in a stunning black mother-of-the-bride gown in the fitting room, yet couldn’t bring herself to buy that color.
SL might be amused to know that sizes of brides have also changed from the 1930’s when her grandmother was the size of today’s 13-year old American girl. In addition, older gowns, unless they bear designer labels (think Worth, Chanel, Givenchy) are hard to sell and often not worth much. SL’s gown would be sold at auction for under $200.
J.S. has four framed engravings on paper from the Victorian era, circa 1840. The titles are narrative, instructive and symptomatic of the mid-Victorian sentiment around art for the home: "A Contadina Family Prisoners with Banditti," "The First Day of Oysters," "Neapolitan Peasants" and "A Procession with Christening" — all joyful, sweet and idyllic glimpses into the merry lives of healthy Italian peasant folks, just the opposite of real peasants in the 1840s.
The print I chose to include in a photo here has the added Victorian flourish of sex in the scene. Look at the dynamic between the handsome Italian bandit and the lovely young wife. Witness also the despair of the husband who, no doubt, caused the little family tragedy with his intrepid travels away from the safety of home. The artist was quite a notable Victorian tastemaker, Charles Lock Eastlake, the piece engraved by Edward Smith, and published by EW Finden. On old British engravings, J.S., look for three names: one will be the artist, from whose painting the engraving was copied; one will be the engraver; and one, the publisher.
When a mid-19th century image was reproduced in an engraving, generally the artist had little to do with the reproduction. Before copyright, any engraver could "popularize" an image. So many engravings were made of famous or beloved paintings, it's hard to understand why the original artists did not complain, but then, this was before intellectual property was property.
Charles Lock Eastlake, however, a worldly man of art, might have known his paintings were being mass-published as engravings. Eastlake was such a famous scholar, author and artist that in 1841 he was nominated to the Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission of England. Sir Charles' famous nephew, also a Charles Locke Eastlake (note the "e" after Lock, unlike his uncle's name), was instrumental in establishing "Rules for a Tasteful British House" in his book Hints on Household Taste. His uncle Charles was the famous keeper of the National Gallery in London, president of the Royal Academy in 1850, president of the Photographic Society in 1853, and finally the director of the National Gallery in 1855. The British art world respected both uncle and nephew as artists and academicians; Uncle Charles became Sir Charles in 1850.
The elder Eastlake is known for his works of art, many with Italian themes, as well as his translation of Goethe's "Theory of Colors" in 1840. Uncle Charles was a polymath, a gentleman of his times, good at almost everything, with piles of money to boot.
These engravings would have "ennobled" the room where they hung in the 1840s-50s and would have signaled the occupant's excellent taste in art and knowledge of art scholarship. Once considered valuable, these prints today sell for $40 to $50 each! I know of no poorer object in the market today than mid-19th century British "narrative" engravings or "after" prints like these, which preach a slightly saccharine story.
The younger Charles' famous bible of taste, Hints on Household Taste, recommended to the British public that each family should strive for high levels of "beauty" in their homes. Here's a quote from the book: "It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls, it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls." Charles did not flatter the female housewives of his era: "We may condemn a lady's opinion on politics, criticize her handwriting, correct her Latin, but if we venture to question her taste, in the most ordinary sense of the word, we are sure to offend." And his "Hints" included instruction on a lady's choice of upholstery, fabrics, wall colors, the type of engravings to hang, the style of furniture to purchase. He suggested "fixed principles of taste for the popular guidance of those not accustomed to hear such principles." Here again we see that late Victorian moralizing influence.
The elder Charles loved, as we see in J.S.'s engravings, Italy, where he studied art as a student in Rome with Sir Thomas Lawrence and JMW Turner. He died, after a long British career as a scholar and gallery director, in Pisa in 1865. A sea change from London, he adored Naples and admired the Italian peasant life symbolized by the "contadina," an Italian expression meaning "girl of the fields." His own wife was just the opposite type of female, a highly educated translator of thick, dense German philosophy! J.S., your four prints in a series are worth $200. Hold 'em — one day the world may admire Victorian printmaking.
In the 1990’s I rented a marvelous apartment in an unrestored 1920’s building. Each of the 20 units had a 1920-30 Magic Chef gas/propane antique gas stove. The owner dumped them all. Today a good one, restored, might run you up to $6000.
D. L. from Santa Barbara sends me a photo of her 1920-1930 Oxford Universal Range, of which she owns two identical – one purchased for her and one for her married son. I have made this mistake too; I buy things for Lock, but my son and his wife don’t have the same (retro) taste I do. The result: D says she needs to sell one of her Oxfords.
You’ll see this is a 4-burner. The porcelain enamel top shuts over the burners, creating a square profile. My research indicates a manufacture date of 1932 made by Cribben and Sexton Co. of Chicago, IL. I found it on virtual display at Kendall College of Chicago, at The Culinary Curiosity Exhibition, from the Mel and Janet Mickevic Collection. 200 early kitchen objects collected by the Mickevics adorn the culinary arts school, including one of D’s Oxford range.
Preparing food has changed dramatically in my lifetime–think of the microwave, the toaster oven, the rice cooker. Air conditioning was scarce; refrigeration was unreliable in the hot summers of my childhood. Think back to the Depression, the era of D’s stove, and you’ll remember the Deco streamline in rich folks’ interior designs. The middle classes needed some flair in the Deco direction, and this stove was the answer. Hard for us to see now, but D’s stove, as opposed to the earlier models, was actually considered elegant and streamlined, folding up into a 36” x 42” x 25” cube on graceful little cabriole ivory enameled legs. The hardware is teardrop shaped dangles of black ceramic. The top over the range creates a space saving prep surface. Notice the introduction of the oven’s temperature control in a dial to the side. Even though oven thermometers were invented in 1915, only by the 1930’s were they standard built-in equipment.
The porcelain enamel finish is deep green malachite, marbleized. This is a Deco nod to Classicism. The clean lines of Greek and Roman designs, so beloved of the Deco period, are referenced here. The marble look also spoke to solidity and importance. By the 1920’s cooks could choose a stove color: gray, white, beige, green and blue.
Before gas stoves, which we take for granted today, kitchen ranges pre-1930 were often oil-fueled. (People with furnaces will have an insight into the difference.) Propane stoves were also outmoded by the 1930’s when semi-reliable natural gas lines were added to homes in the more populated areas of the US.
D asks me the value, and in this category of collectibles, we see a wide range of prices paid, simply because either you want an old stove or you don’t. Those that have to dump an old stove have a beast on their hands. They are heavy and perhaps untrustworthy and modern cooks want more mod cons, although D tells me she finesses a turkey every year in her Oxford. So I see them selling in desperation for $50. Yet I see a similar retro gas antique restored and partially reproduced stove like D’s selling for $6800 on the “Good Time Stove” site. Sites have stove auctions, which reinforces my supposition that the marketplace has no concrete “blue book” of definite valuation.
However, 65 million major appliances–refrigerators, stoves, and dishwashers–are shipped to US consumers yearly, along with 100 million small appliances, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Some big names are turning retro: Frigidaire went back to its 1950’s era script-style logo. And the most expensive retro stove of all grows in popularity in the US: the Aga Range has always been the kitchen status symbol of the UK. Their brightly enameled cast iron exterior piloted in Sweden in the 1920’s belies an interior that cooks by radiant heat – it’s always on.
As close a valuation for D’s stove as I can get is quoted in USA Today, 2012: A cooking school in Pennsylvania tracked down one of D’s style stoves and paid $1500 before restoration. Restoration is costly, more if you want a stove converted to electric.
Still, two factors are in play with old retro stoves: they say grandma or mom, implying good loving food, and they are saved from the growing landfills of our consumer culture of “throw-away.”
C.R. from Santa Barbara finished remodeling her house and decided to go with a new, fresh look. She's tired of the look of rooms we used to call "period," in other words, antique-laden. She got in touch with me about a sideboard buffet for which she paid somewhere in the mid-four figures. She asked if I knew where to sell the Louis XV-style cabinet, complete with marble top, four cabinet doors below, a mirrored backsplash and a curved glass vitrine display above for fine china. The doors bear delicate and scrolling floral relief carving. It's graceful and a statement of the importance we once put on dining room furniture and display for our fine china and silver.
Business Insider features an article entitled "We went to a Goodwill store and saw how it's overrun with stuff Millennials and Gen X'ers refuse to take from their parents." Goodwill directors "have seen an uptick in donations in urban areas where a high concentration of Millennials live. There's been an increase in donations of dining room furniture in particular, as it's a room that Millennials often don't have in their homes," says the Insider.
Well, C.R., here's the problem: The form of your piece, a sideboard, makes it one of the most difficult forms to sell. And the style, Louis XV Revival, circa 1910-20, also makes it a hard sell because of the flourishes and florals.
Think of what they designed this sideboard to display: silverplate, fine china and crystal. Now think of this fact: Globally, the largest segment of the most powerful market today is people born from 1981-97. These are the millennials, with a global annual spending power of $2.5 trillion. If the millennial generation doesn't buy dining furniture, dining rooms, fine china, silverplate, linens and good crystal for the formal table, the market for such objects is anything but flourishing.
C.R. told me she's lightening up the tone of her home, using a more contemporary look. She's not the only one designing that way in Santa Barbara, where the most common phone call to my office is "Help! I want to live with LESS!" Simpler lines, less furniture, less to worry about — many of us here want to live simpler. I told C.R. the market for a sale of her piece in Santa Barbara is bad.
So there it sits in the garage. Can she sell it at auction? The two closest auctions (remember, transportation of heavy furniture is expensive) for this style of furniture are Clars in Oakland and Abell in Los Angeles. Neither house will take a piece of furniture that is estimated to sell for $500 to $1,000, only over that amount. She asked about Craigslist, which she dislikes, as do I. Therefore, I suggested a donation.
Now, an accountant will tell her that the new tax act says itemized deductions for small donations are a thing of the past. Well, a donation should no longer be considered simply a "tax motivation," says Rosemary L. Ringwald, managing director, U.S. Trust, Bank of America. I reached her by phone; she's a great resource on art as an asset class. C.R. "doesn't get to itemize her deduction unless she's over the threshold," which is now $12,000 for an individual, $24,000 for a couple. C.R. "can't get past that," she said. Ms. Ringwald suggested that a deduction is not why we donate today, against my suggestion that charities who accept small donations of art and antiques might suffer under this new act. On the contrary, "Families are increasingly setting up foundations" (involving art and antiquities), "even when a straight donation may hold more tax benefit." We discussed that C.R. might donate to a historic home museum and see her donation enjoyed by the public.
My suggestion is to ask her accountant about a donation anyway. Donations are estimated hypothetically, using consummated sales of similar objects, but those sales you find don't have to be geographically specific. Santa Barbara is not a good place to sell dining furniture or carved French-style furniture. Looking for a hypothetical fair market value for donation purposes, you'd have to look nationally for sales, perhaps where the market for this style and type of furniture is active.
Finally, C.R. would gladly sell the sideboard to you if you like the piece! Let me know, and I'll hook you up with a fine dining room buffet for your fine china, crystal and silver.
JD from Santa Barbara sends me two pieces of bright yellow Vaseline glass, both of which were once part of a desk set. You see an ink well and a paperclip bowl. Originally, the set would have been complete in yellow glass: a pen tray, a nib box, a letter holder, a stamp box, a blotter roller and two blotter weights for a desk blotter pad. This was a proper office gift.
If JD had a black light (UV), he would be scared. The glass would glow an ominous sickly green – showing evidence of uranium, usually in trace levels of 2% by weight uranium, but some maleficent glassmakers included up to 25% uranium. After the 1940’s, when uranium was stockpiled for our counter-attack (some thought) against the Russians, Vaseline glass was no long produced. Uranium today is still used in scientific glass.
If JD had a Geiger counter on his desk, it would click, showing “above background” radiation. Martin Klaproth (1743-1817), an experienced glassmaker, would have been proud – he discovered uranium in the 1700s. He would have loved to see J.D. exposed to radioactivity.
The fashion for this glass, which can range from yellow to yellow-green, began in traditional glassworks in Bohemia (now Austria). In 1840, Baccarat in France caught on to the unique color, producing their own brand of Vaseline glass, christened Chrysoprase, after its resemblance to rare chalcedony, a form of silica (quartz and monazite) mineral, gaining its green color in nature from nickel oxide. The glass earned the name Vaseline because of the color resemblance to the commercial entry to the market, contemporaneously, of that petroleum jelly.
Resembling petroleum jelly in its viscosity, Craftsmen discovered that the addition of uranium to glass allowed them to fire the glass at intense heat; the micro-crystallization also enabled glassmakers to produce oily or greasy looking depths to the glass. Some Vaseline glass can fool a collector into thinking he/she owns a piece of porcelain it can appear so opaque. And unlike lower-fired glass, it is very hardy, so pieces such as JD’s still survive today.
Yet that scientist in the 18th century simply rediscovered the use of uranium in glass: the earliest known use dates from 79AD, in glass mosaics found in a Roman villa on the Bay of Naples, discovered by an Oxford don in 1912.
As late as the 1920-1930, this radioactive glass was manufactured and collections showed up named green “Depression Glass,” or the rare and valuable Anglo-American blend of pink and yellow opaque glass called “Burmese” glass, or the imitation jade (usually fraudulently labeled real jade, made in China) called “Jadeite” glass, and the tableware called “Custard” glass.
Surprisingly rampant chemical experiments occurred in the mid to late 19th century: glass manufacturers capitalized on the growing middleclass market for a loaded, beautifully presented middle class table, for the first time available for middle class buyers. Previously only the very rich could afford glass in abundance. Mid-19th century glass was molded in a factory and NOT hand blown, piece by piece; the mechanization of glass made it a democratic medium, in demand as new brides’ gifts. And what a divergence of forms were produced. The ubiquitous banana boat and the pickle caster date from this period. Every table had to have three sizes of glass goblets as well as glass side dishes for fruit and cake. Centerpieces to hold fruit of pressed glass came into vogue as well as mass produced sherbet stemware.
Although this glass won’t kill you, collectors are usually delighted when someone notices they in fact collect uranium in a trace form. Glass bead wearers beware; many yellow or green beads from the earlier 1900s contain uranium, as well as MOST collectible children’s marbles from the earlier 20th century. I'm shocked to think that not only were children’s marbles fraught with traces of uranium but most kid’s toys of cast iron were painted with lead paint.
JD’s pieces are worth $150 each, but the rarest form of American Vaseline glass was made at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Co. in Massachusetts in the mid to late 19th century. A pair of Vaseline Sandwich small vases can sell for as much as $1,500 for a pair.
The first time G.M. and her family evacuated, ash from the Thomas Fire fell around them. She packed up three cars and they headed for a friend's house in Monterey.
"I hated selecting amongst my art, my silver, my personal files, my clothes, my jewelry, and my son's little school ceramic presents. I thought I might come back to nothing." She writes that the moment she drove away from her Montecito home threatened by the largest fire in California history, she almost hoped she would find nothing when she returned. "I kind of wished for a simpler way of living. I realized I had too much stuff."
Thus her email to me: "Dr. E., do you have suggestions for lightening my load?" After re-hanging her art on December 19, she found herself 'doing it all again,' evacuating in the rain on Jan. 9.
G.M. spent years furnishing her home. I came to visit and offered her the following suggestions based on "object class" categories, an appraising term that acknowledges both the type and market level of collections. My suggestions are here not for homeowner's insurance purposes but are simply a few hints for less painful decisions around treasures. The past couple months we have been faced with two wild races around our homes to pull together what's "important." I suggest that although the objects seem important, we can diminish the tenacity with which we hang onto them.
Start with your storage unit. A colleague of mine is helping a client go through a mud-soaked locker right now. G.M., like 10 percent of American homeowners, has a costly and not often visited storage unit. G.M., take a weekend, hire a crew, take photos to accompany your IRS form 8283 for donations and donate things. Take along some fresh boxes for the keepers and label each with photos of what's inside. We used a little portable printer that attached to a digital camera and printed out photos right there. Contract with the facility for a smaller storage space in advance. That way you'll have to declutter.
Next, have a good look at the art in your home. Divide the art into "can't live without" and "valuable." You'll be surprised at the difference. Hire someone like me to assess the valuable art. Hire someone with a great camera and good lighting for the "can't live without" group. Shoot so that you can reproduce that group into giclees (really good reproductions) in the event of a total loss. In the event of an evacuation, take only the expensive stuff.
On to the kitchen! Keep one good set of china, and one everyday set. You kitchen is not the place to make time-consuming decisions. The market value for anything once called "formal entertaining" is minimal. Miss something you donate? It's dirt cheap to buy it again.
Next, check your sentimental objects, letters and photos. Nothing in this category is useful, except for what it says about you. Therefore, make this group into real, live stories. Hire someone who can take good still photos or a video, spend an afternoon reciting what those objects and letters mean. I had a client whose late husband used Noxzema in those cobalt blue jars; he saved each empty. She had five boxes of jars she couldn't dispose of. The color and smell reminded her poignantly of her late husband. I had our staff photographer John make a lovely composition tower of those jars, light it beautifully and make an art piece for her.
Losing everything is a turning point, whether it means rebuilding or restoring. But after a disaster, we think differently about possessions. Thus, think in advance, for next time, about innovative ways to keep the stories those objects tell and let some of those objects go.
A good example is your large collection of books. A client of mine, an avid reader and collector, today has a library buried in 4 feet of mud. The books remain on the shelves, looking like someone had painted them brown. All 700 volumes are toast. My suggestion? Photograph all covers. Hire a knowledgeable dealer to explain which of your books are rare or first editions. Keep those; donate the rest, because you now have a photographic record of what you have read. Check the price of used books you can always buy back a title.
Facing a chaos is one thing. Facing a chaos of memories is another! My final word: Prepare yourself for creative ways to focus on the memories before you are forced to say goodbye to the objects.
For more advice from Dr. Elizabeth Stewart on how to downsize and declutter watch her videos on the subject.
A.K. sends an old engraving on paper of Abraham Lincoln in oval form, bordered by scenes from his life. The bottom is printed “Photograph by MB Brady” with a Lincoln signature facsimile, also, “Engraved and published by JC Buttre, 48 Franklin Street, New York.”
Although this steel plate engraving is not worth much money, it is worth a great deal in historical meaning. The work exhibits the close relationship between two mediums: photography and print engraving; as an engraver would copy a photo (copyright not invented yet), the lithograph offered it to the newspapers. The first images of a great President were pioneered, as well as many images of popular American heroes of the Civil War era, including folk heroes of the Revolutionary times. Previously, Americans might not have recognized the face of a great hero. After images like A.K.’s in the mid-19th century, a celebrity face was everywhere. In these days of the ubiquitous faces of our Presidential candidates, we are immune to a time when a celebrity face was met only in person.
The engraver, John Chester Buttre (1821-93) had a distinguished career as a portrait engraver, copying from well-known artists and photographers, making over 3,000 engravings of Americans of political and military import. He tapped into a nationalistic cultural phenomenon, because although photography was “inverted” in the second quarter of the 19th century, the process was not affordable for middle-class collectors of American valor. And boy, did we collect famous portraits in the mid-19th century; Americans were proud of their heroes. Buttre’s fame began with a full-length portrait of our fifteenth president, James Buchanan (1791-1868), as well as a portrait of Martha Washington (1731- 1802) in 1858.
Capitalizing on the tenor of the Civil War era, when more men died in the Civil War than any other American conflict, Buttre specialized in Civil War heroes, especially the dead ones. Two percent of the population died in that war, the equivalent of 6 million men today. Deadlier still were the diseases of the war; mumps, chickenpox, and measles: two thirds of the Civil War dead perished from disease along.
Thus within sight of the specter of death there arose a strange mid 19th century sentimentality in the visual arts which glorified home, childhood, and religion. Buttre the engraver seized upon this current with images such as “The Happy Days of Childhood” and “Prayer in Camp,” some of his best-selling genre engravings. Greater still was his series of Lincoln portraits.
The Brown University Library has 168 images by Buttre; many picture Lincoln, etched from photos by the famous Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady . Also among Buttre’s stable of worthies are Adm. Stringham (War of 1812), Brig. Generals Burnside and Don Carlos Buell (Mexican-American War), and Brig. Generals Fitz Henry Warren and Franz Sigel (Civil War). The names give an indication of the multicultural military in the early years. In the Civil War, for example, one in four regiments contained a majority immigrant fighting force. Buttre’s engravings reflect this diversity.
A.K.’s engraving is taken by Buttre from an original photograph by the foremost American war photographer, Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896), self-appointed official photographer for the Union Army. Brady captured the war from his horse-drawn “Whatsit Wagon” studio. His charisma and talent made him welcome on the front, a rare thing for the paparazzi these days.
Statesmen and heroes vied to sit for Brady, but the most famous sitter was of course Abraham Lincoln. His “Brady Lincoln” is the photo used for the engraving on our five-dollar bill. Other notables who sat for Brady were Jackson, Webster, Grant, Lee, Carnegie, and Barnum. Photographic images were collected on cartes-de-visite (calling cards), traded like baseball cards.
If you saw the movie Lincoln, you saw Brady’s images, most of which were shot with huge glass plates under difficult conditions. The Brady photos, with his colleagues Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, changed the way we thought about war, slavery, prisoners of war ---and President Lincoln. A god was created in Brady’s images of Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam, Lincoln as he ascends the platform to speak at Gettysburg, Lincoln as the Grand Review marches past, and the hanged Lincoln conspirators. Brady’s “Lincoln portraits” live on, as A.K.’s has been saved for 150+ years. The value at auction, because this image was so popular, is $250.
Interestingly, J.B. Buttre’s work might have been forgotten except for his enterprising and uncommon businesswoman daughter Lillian C. Buttre, who published her dad’s work in three volumes, The American Portrait Gallery (1880-1).
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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