It's 1956 and your mom and dad are shopping for furniture. They've recently been to New York to see the 1954 exhibition "Design in Scandinavia," curated by Canadian designer John O. Van Koert (1912-1998), at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They fell in love with the 700 objects from Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish designers, and in the craft tradition, making simple, usable domestic linear furniture and objects by hand.
This exhibition traveled through the U.S. and Canada from 1954 to 1957. The newness of the designs arrested young homemaker. Your mom and dad couldn't afford Scandinavian-made furniture; they wanted the look but not the price tag. Enter Drexel Furniture Co. of Drexel, N.C., which noticed the craze and hired curator/designer Van Koert to create a line of walnut and pecan furniture to suit the tastes and budgets of post-World War II families.
Mom and Dad had a bedroom in that ranch-style house in the suburbs to fill with something special, and they chose Profile by Drexel in 1956, with a long dresser for Mom, featuring a large, simple mirror supported on posts at the back, and a tall, commodious man's dresser with cubbies and plastic units for Dad's things. Mom and Dad also became the first on the block to consider "sleeping together." The early 1950s, just before they were married, was a time of single beds in most parents' rooms. Because Profile was a European-originated design, Mom was convinced to select a double or queen headboard to span the width of one single matrimonial mattress.
Your parents sought Profile because the 1956 ad was evocative: "You can see the difference ... it's Drexel." The ad goes on to say: "Just look! Isn't Profile by Drexel a picture of livability? Walnut warmed with color accented by silvery hardware! Gentle modern curves, designed by John Van Koert, that (complement) traditional rooms, too. And the invisible, but inevitable, differences in all Drexel — craftsmanship and value! See for yourself, at all fine stores!" Although Dad saw that sparse modern photo, he was not persuaded. Dad insisted the family go see Profile in a showroom.
Dad picked between Abraham & Straus, Macy's or Bloomingdale's. When the obliging salesman showed the room setting, Mom was sold. She saw the curved cornices and splayed legs in walnut, with chartreuse upholstery, set off, vignette-style, against a purple, silver and electric blue wall. Dad got out the checkbook.
Today, this style of furniture is both hot and ubiquitous, because all of us knew a Scandinavian Modern family. American "Scandinavian" Modern had a distinct domestic look. Designers like Van Koert added American elements of Art Moderne, the sweeping aerodynamic lines of speed and movement. The real Scandinavian designs were never mass-produced. Real Scandinavian design was hand crafted and hand finished, and looked and cost it.
John Van Koert was one of the first American designers to construct in "Scandinavian," although he was born in Manitoba and had taught art of the University of Wisconsin. His early passion was metalwork. As a young designer, he crafted jewelry for Harry Winston in New York City. As always in the decorative arts, the original inspiration for design comes from metalwork: jewelry and sterling silver. In fact, throughout any era, look at the jewelry and you will see where furniture will go.
In the early 1950s, Van Koert and designer Robert J. King created a pattern for Towle Silversmiths called "Contour," based on the sweeping modernist curves of Miro. Contour was a hit, and a piece of Contour was featured in a 1951 show, "The History of Eating," at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Look at the hardware on the Profile furniture pictured here, sent to me by R.P., who wants to sell it for his friend whose grandparent's once owned it. You will see the influence of silver craftsmanship in the non-mechanical (handmade) elongation of the pulls.
One of the sad things about Drexel furniture of this era is that it has gone brown. The original color is translucent honey brown. It's okay to refinish, as the original finishes don't necessarily increase value because pieces are too recent and too mass-produced. If R.P. can find a buyer, that buyer will take 220 light grit sandpaper to the finish, spray it with several coats of lacquer.
R.P. asked me to research the value. At the base price, the market is asking $300 to $500 per case piece in this condition, although fine refinished pieces go for more.
My evaluation of a Japanese mourning kimono inspired S.L. in Santa Maria to sends me this gorgeous Chinese Mandarin robe.
Look at the back of the robe and you will see a pagoda enclosing two male figures flanked on one side by cranes, the other by deer surmounting two monkeys. This motif is called a Mandarin square, which, although here not square is the eponymous name of a symbol which indicates the rank and status of the wearer, as worn by a civil or military official in the Mongol, Ming or Qing dynasties. The front of the robe also has two emblems on either side of the chest.
As far back as the 14th century, Kublai Khan introduced these badges of embroidered silk of patterns of birds and animals worn on the back and chest areas of robes of the Mandarin class, who had to pass difficult examinations to achieve their posts. Military officers also had certain motifs for particular ranks. Only the emperor could confer the privilege to wear Mandarin squares; this continued well after the 14th century, when the Ming dynasty ruled supreme.
After the Manchu people seized power in 1654, their Qing dynasty established the type of over-jacket (p’u-fu) with those squares bearing more elaborate embroidery work, adding pure gold thread that glistened in the sunlight.
S.L.’s robe is early 20th century however. By this time, rank was not the driving force behind the square, but the mythology of traditional “good luck” charms. Politically, China was in turmoil and people distrusted their officials. The wealthy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wore Buddhist emblems of good fortune, such as the eight Immortals or the eight Taoist symbols.
If you have ever seen the reverse painting on glass of these Mandarin officials, you have seen “Ancestor Portraits.” These robes are featured prominently in these portraits, and Mandarins often immortalized their wives in portraiture. When two people were painted, the robes bear symmetrical representations of good luck symbols. For example, portraits of a formally enthroned couple are sitting side by side: the wife may have a half-sun on her shoulder, and her high-ranking husband might have the other half of the sun on the shoulder barely touching hers. You'll also see the front of a deer on one shoulder and the back-end of a deer on the other. I wonder which part of the deer was most auspicious, the head or the hind?
Mandarin squares of luck were custom-ordered. If a Mandarin official courted wealth, he would ask for embroideries of ivory tusks, peonies, or the eight Buddhist jewels. If the Mandarin prayed for long life, the robe boasted pine trees, bamboo, cypress or evergreen trees or fungus. If the Mandarin longed for honor and privilege, he’d ask for embroidered peonies. If he sought eternal youth, he’d request roses on his robe. To amplify the wish for good fortune in a particular sphere of his life, he'd ask for a naturalistic background behind his charmed symbol, such as S.L.’s pagoda surrounded by flowers, or the cloud designs with dragons featured on the hem of the robe, or the rock designs in waves at the base of the hem. Nature’s energies were thus captured by the export needlework in precious gold or silver that emphasized naturalistic color.
Beloved by seekers of luck, these robes often pictured the eight Immortals. Even today, these Immortals are Daoist models for imitation when life seems overwhelming, and because of their wise yet playful nature, they rise above the frustrations of normal daily life. Depictions of these Immortals emphasize "The Way," personified. Zhongli Quan carried the secret of the Elixir of Life and immortality. The old man, Zhang GuoLao, was a symbol of wisdom and hope for conception for the childless. Lü Dongbin, the scholar, could cure illness and offered protection and scholarly success. Cao Gou Jiu is the beautifully dressed courtier offering fame and recognition. Iron-Crutch Li Tie Guai has a deer as a companion and is the most powerful of the Eight, because he bestows wisdom. Han Xiang Zi plays his flute and his happiness brings healing. The hermaphrodite Lan Cai wears blue, and carries flowers conferring luck to young maidens, and the eighth Immortal, a female, He Xian Gu is called upon for wisdom, meditation and purity.
S.L. asked me to help her sell the robe so I contacted Clars Auctions in Oakland. They have estimated the value at $1,500.
I often present Antique Road Show style events throughout the country. Last year I spent such an afternoon at my son’s business in Durham, NC. A young man brought in a bottle with small grains of sand in an elaborate deign with flowers and an American flag. I froze: “Don’t shake it! And don’t drop it!”
The 30-somethings at my son’s office thought, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a paperweight!” The ‘paperweight’ sold a few months latter at Cowan’s in Cincinnati, a good place to sell Americana, for $75,000. Thankfully, the young man didn't shake it up when her brought it to me on his skateboard.
The palette of about a dozen colors, with accent colors for shading, is completely natural. The artist gathered each grain of sand from Pictured Rock, where he had attended the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in the 1870’s.
The artist, Andrew Clemens (1857-1894), became quite a tourist attraction on the streets of MacGregor, Iowa, making onlookers’ souvenir bottles. This one has a name inscribed, because someone who loved her paid Clemens $5-$7, not cheap in those days ($110-160).
Clemens, who never used glue, developed a set of long handled tools to work his magic inside of apothecary jars. His bottles exist, quite solidly, for over 100 years, as was this young man’s piece. Clemens sealed the bottles with stoppers coated with wax. The mind boggles at how many young fingers pried open the wax and open the stoppers to see how such pieces were composed.
In fact, this destructive, curious mind set was part of the bottles’ appeal: Clemens exhibited in St Louis, completing bottles and smashing them with a hammer to show that they were not fixed.
Fitting that the business staffed by my son and his colleague, who owned the sand art piece by Andrew Clemens, is a start-up in the age of Automated Intelligence via all things digital. Clemens composed his pieces one grain of sand at a time, upside down; similar to the creation of digital art pixel by pixel.
Some minds understand reduction to the very elements of a design, and Clemens’ mind was one of those. He died at 37, but left hundreds of what the world considers the best sand art known. A few other minds in history employed this painstaking technique, notably Tibetan monks creating wonderful dry painted sand mandalas. Unlike Clemens’, work the monks created images that were philosophically redolent of temporality. Other cultures, such as Southwest Native Americans and Australian Aborigines created two-dimensional sand paintings.
Leave it to the European sensibility to use sand paintings for the senses. People who enjoy incredible detail are drawn to this art form, such as King George III, who had a hobby of watch- making. George III (1738- 1820) observed the fashion of his day at noble houses, employing sand artists to decorate white tablecloths for banquets with site-specific paintings: around the fruit bowl, trees and monkeys, around the sweets, birds and bees. These were shaken after the meal along with the breadcrumbs.
George III hired a team of German artists to devise a way (actually long invented by the Japanese) of fixing the designs with lead and gum Arabic. So fashionable were these follies that the Duke of York commissioned a portrait of his dog Nelson.
19th century tourists on the Isle of Wight purchased sand art bottles and fixed sand paintings made by local craftswomen, who collected their palette from the cliffs at Alum Bay, although these were not up to the artistry of Andrew Clemens’ work. Once an unheard of tourist destination, after Queen Victoria planned a residence there, such souvenir craft was a cultural marker of the Victorian era as tourists began to travel by rail.
Similarly, sand carpets are created in diverse places around the globe: the Netherlands, to garner tourists, and in Latin American countries, to show the fleeting nature of life, as in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. Seattle also celebrates the Day of the Dead with sand painted streets.
Andrew Clemens would be happy to know that young artists of today paint with sand. In 2012 the Museum of Arts and Design in New York featured sand work by artists (well know Andy Goldsworthy created a ball of sand filled with bones) in an exhibit called “Swept Away”.
C.G. from Lompoc sends me a plea – he has a Gorham sterling silver tea service circa 1922, which he had appraised in 1980 for $6,500, at the top of the silver market. It consists of a coffee pot, teapot, covered sugar and creamer. The combined weight is 63.65 troy ounces.
C.G. despairs of having this set melted down, and is searching for an establishment that will purchase, at a reasonable cost, for the antique value of these pieces. I am not surprised he's had offers for weight value only. The history of antique silver is also the history of a commodity. In February of 1980 silver was $107 a troy ounce. Today the figure ranges around $18 an ounce. In March of 2011, buyers WOULD melt silver down because silver was $40 an ounce. A client with a Tiffany Epergne that was too beautiful to melt down found in March of 2011 that he received more for it melted for scrap than if sold.
Silver, therefore, can be sold by the troy ounce or by antique value. How does C.G. determine antique value so that he knows a dealer or an auction house has given him a fair estimate?
During 2011, many clients stopped by my office to ask. The secret is in the hallmarks, and auction house records of that maker’s sales. Clients know that ethical appraisers don’t buy items appraised so clients receive an objective opinion. If you don’t want to pay for an appraiser, check out ValueMyStuff.com or Worthpoint.com. Or, send photos of your silver including the hallmarks to auction houses (at least three) for estimate ranges: Heritage Auctions, Clars, John Moran, or Bonham’s, for example. The ranges given, for example, let’s say $2,000-3,000 for a tea set, will give an indication of the current market estimate.
Where should C.G. not look to sell? My experience tells me pawnshops, coin shops, replacement services (for flatware, such as Replacements Ltd) are not interested in top dollar payouts for silver. Auction houses are interested in selling silver at top dollar but will charge a commission from 10 to 50%. Figure that commission into what you will receive.
My databases contain all auction sales results for all makers of silver, so let’s look at the recent sale’s records for Gorham made in the 1920’s, like CG’s tea set. A 1912 Gorham set at 67.22 troy oz. sold for $1,416 in January of 2016. A first quarter 20th century set sold December 2015 at 30.74 oz. for $469. A 1927 set at 70.35 oz. sold in November of 2015 for $1,280. A 1910 set at 71.96 oz. sold in October of 2015 for $1,020.
Now Let’s compare Gorham with a great hallmark known worldwide for its antique value, Tiffany, and see if the “antique value” is equal or better than CG’s Gorham: a first quarter 20th century set at 79.7 oz. sold July of 2015 for $2,400, a first quarter 20th century set at 129 oz. sold in December of 2014 for $2,000. Thus, the “antique” value of the brand Tiffany does slightly better than Gorham.
Now let’s take the two highest auction results of Gorham and Tiffany sets and balance them against the current $15 an ounce. A Gorham set at 70.35 oz., which sold for $1,280, would have a meltdown value of $1,266. A Tiffany set at 79.7 oz., which sold for $2,400, would have a meltdown value of $1,434. Thus, we have further confirmation that the market antique value of Gorham is not as great as Tiffany. Lest CG be tempted to take a scrap value, remember, the scrapper does not generally pay full silver value! A question to ask before scrapping: what percentage of troy ounce silver today do you pay?
Finally, C.G., check the hallmarks of your service for “Maker’s Marks,” which refer the designer. Some are very desirable, for example, William C. Codman, who designed the beloved Chantilly in 1895. If the piece has references to the most valuable of all Gorham silver “Martele,” you have something great. Also, C.G., take provenance into consideration, because the history of ownership is also a valuation factor; Lincoln’s White House tea and coffee service was Gorham, the Shah of Iran’s punch bowl was Gorham, and the Nixon White House flatware (3434 pieces) was Gorham.
Finally, two invaluable sources are Rainwater’s Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers and Turner’s American Silver Flatware 1837-1910.
I estimate the auction value of your set to be a disappointing $1,200.
AB’s Uncle served in Vietnam, and brought this sculpture back in the 1970’s. AB wants to know if it's jade, and what the figures represent. Because jade is HOT and VALUABLE in the wealthy and active Chinese market today, let's start with the material, jade, and how to tell if AB has the real deal. Jade is treasured!
Other semi-precious stones and minerals have been used to imitate jade from the 13th century onward, when the Chinese began to dye jade to enhance its colors, making it more valuable. I say colors, because jade can come in many delightful colors, and the key to its beauty is the color depth because of density. Here’s how AB can do a few tests to determine if piece is real jade (Jadeite and Nephrite are jade as well):
Why go to all the trouble of faking jade? If the difference in value between real jade and fake jade is $200 to $12,000, AB can see why Asian artisans created fakes and imitations.
The list of HOW fakes were made is impressive and creative. In the 1970’s when this piece was purchased, artisans were known to bleach poor quality jade. Or perhaps they shaved poor quality jade and then spun with a polymer to make an amalgamation of “jade.” This looks like jade and is in fact jade, but not altogether, but it isn't a lie to say that it's jade. Because the photo AB sends shows a near perfect finish, I would guess that this is the type of imitation; the surface of a polymer amalgamation was coated with a plastic finish that is uniformly smooth. If this scupture was coated, and left in the sun or exposed to household chemicals, it would have faded, but AB had it in a box. AB’s piece looks a little too perfect.
The modern techniques to make fake jade, created from high pressure or high temperature treatments, using modern chemicals and tools, is a far cry from jade ancient craft techniques, in which hand carvers bathed the piece as they worked in plum juice, and buffed the finish to a glow with beeswax. Asian artisans sold many other materials in sculptures that looked like jade: Aventurine Quartz, forms of garnet, forms of marble, serpentine, or prehnite. All these can be dyed and are of lesser value.
To AB’s second question: what does this piece represent? The tall female figure is Kwan Yin, whose name means “the one who hears the cry of the world.” Often referred to as the female Buddha, she is, on AB’s sculpture, pictured with a small laughing Buddha. Like Siddhartha Gautama, Kwan Yin became enlightened, yet she was acutely aware of human suffering. As she entered Nirvana, legend says that she heard the wail of a suffering being on earth, so she returned to this plane. Thus, she is the East’s compassionate mother, whose children are identified by their suffering.
Kwan Yen was and is a popular subject for small sculptures meant for the home, and perhaps AB’s Uncle was told that a sculpture of Kwan Yin would bring good luck and household protection. She has been venerated by Chinese Buddhists since the first Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra in 406 AD. She is associated with the white lotus: AB’s sculpture shows the Lotus leaves twining around her head.
AB, if your Uncle’s sculpture is 100% pure fine unbleached jade, we are talking some big money, upwards of $10K. However, I suspect this piece is an amalgamation, a polymer composite, perhaps Peking Glass, or dyed semi-precious stone, as the piece looks too uniform and perfect. If I am right, the value would be closer to $300 depending on the size and condition.
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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