M. L. from Santa Barbara mailed me two pictures of two baskets: a lidded one, which she believes was crafted by the Native Americans of the Northwest, according to family apocrypha. The other basket, however, really caught my interest because of its quiet subtlety, in natural coils, at about 7” wide, flaring, which her mother believed was an African drinking vessel. Her mother, however, expressed this belief 80-years ago as it sat on the family mantelpiece, and M. L. says it might be older than even the date of her mom’s remark to M. L. as a little girl. This basket, however, is NOT African. Both baskets are Northwest.
Thousands of years ago, Native Peoples created basketry as a form that crossed the borders between art and artifact. The “artificer” had in mind beauty, but she also had in mind utility: for food gathering and storage, to hold garments, fish, and ceremonial implements, to mention only few uses.
To carry heavy loads, burden baskets were woven sturdily and were worn on the back with a tumpline (a strap that passes over the forehead). Berry baskets were woven flexibly for bruisable fruit, so delicately worked that these baskets could be folded. Fish and shellfish baskets had open weaves for drainage and rinsing. In fact, shellfish could be steamed in tautly woven openwork baskets and a watertight water-filled basket was strong enough to receive hot coals to bring water to a boil. Imagine the skills, which were passed down over thousands of years, to create these simple wonders out of the local flora and fauna.
These baskets were made for the delight and use of the People, but during the late 19th and early 20th C., Native women marketed “trinket” baskets to tourists, creating new forms that were purely decorative. For example, Northwest weavers found detritus glass bottles washed up on shores and wove beautiful mat coverings around them for tourists. Today, Northwest Native American basketry is no longer viewed as ethnographic specimens or souvenir art: these baskets have entered the realm of ‘fine art’ in the Western meaning of ‘art’ and collectors pay a great deal for finds in this fine of condition.
Materials used in baskets such as M. L.’s (both are indeed Northwest) are maiden-hair fern stems, horsetail root, red cherry bark and many grasses, gathered during specific times of the year: Native weavers knew when materials were ripe for picking. Various materials needed to be boiled and line-dried for weeks. Gatherers needed to know when sap was running; if material was pulled from the bark of a tree, the removal was sparing and done in a respectful ‘twisting’ way, which did not harm the tree; if a root was needed, only one or two roots were taken.
The darker ‘elegant’ basket is Salish, late 19th C., in a style called ‘coiled and imbricated’, on natural ground. “Imbricated” means interlaced raised elements of triangulated shapes of woven material, with obvious overlapped edges. The imbricated design is subtle and effective in anchoring the flaring sides of the wide-open basket. The effect of the shining imbricated weave glistens like fish scales. The base of the basket forms a beautiful “finish” to the support, delicately forming a “foot.” The basket, in its form, simplicity and elegance, is indeed a work of art. The ‘exclamation point’ to its composition is the little raised button in the inside center of the bottom of the basket, emphasizing the roundness of the coils as they taper. The form is a gathering or work basket, worth $600-800.
The colorful lidded basket is also Northwest, but Skokomish, and also close to 100-years old; a different weave which is not coiled but “twined,” a classic example of plain twining. Vertical geometric design zones filled with red and green dyed material are called “fishnets,” dyed red with pigment from cranberries, nettle, hemlock bark, alder bark, alder wood or sea-urchin juice, and dyed green with pigment from copper oxide. The dyestuffs were also taken from the land, until the late 19th C when Aniline dyes introduced by Anglo traders were sold to the People: these Aniline colors were harsher in tone. This basket would sell at auction for $700.
E.W. has a beautiful small set of Minton china. Each plate is hand-painted with a different leaf design. She has six cups and saucers, one cake plate, and two small plates in this custom pattern. Her grandmother gave it to her father in 1933.
E.W. has a letter dated 1983 from her mother gifting her these objects, created back in 1864 for E.W.'s great-grandfather, Walter Churchill. Back in 1933, the service was 120 pieces. As often happens, a treasured china set is broken up between siblings, decreasing its value; from 120 pieces, E.W.'s grandmother inherited 18 cups and saucers, and E.W.'s mother distributed 18 pieces to various children.
Did Minton create bespoke custom services? Yes, especially in the Beaux Arts period where elaborate china services for formal dining were de rigueur. Though it began with the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Fricks and the Mellons, the fashion of formal entertaining at a luxurious table spread to the middle classes by the end of the 19th century. Receiving a wedding set of formal china was a rite of passage into good society. But how to set a value on what is a lost art today, dining on high-maintenance gold-rimmed porcelain?
A few buyers are still out there for such services. Gilded Age Dining, a gallery in New York, sells these wondrous services. A niche market, vintage china rental is available from businesses such as Santa Barbara's Otis + Pearl, serving those of the small-house generation who have occasion for an impressive service but lack cabinets and padding to store delicate pieces used once a year.
The market, though, for selling a fine porcelain service is deplorable. My son and his generation is the cause. He and his wife don't want my gold-edged Minton. Those over 50 want to divest of such services. Failing a gift to the kids, what can we do with them?
Let's look at some comparable sales. Gilded Age Dining has a set of Minton — 12 gold, rose gold and platinum plates — custom-made for a Tiffany & Co. client in 1884. If E.W.'s plates have a special cypher, "G and H," this indicates a special class of Minton, services created for the ultra-rich in the late 19th century. E.W.'s china is not as valuable as this set ($2,000) due to its small size, lack of gold encrustation, and lack of maker's mark. Yet there's another element in value: provenance.
E.W.'s family calls this the "Churchill Minton." Was Walter Churchill a relation to Winston? No, but another famous Churchill is a possibility: Group Captain Walter Myers Churchill (1907-42), a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II, from a highly decorated military family: all brothers were "Special Operations." Walter was named after his uncle, an eminent bacteriologist who died in 1901. The whole Churchill clan was remarkable: Walter, an ace pilot credited with seven kills and awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross, died early in the defense of Malta 1942. The family aeronautics company, J J Churchill, worked with Sir Frank Whittle, the jet-engine pioneer of the early 1940s.
If E.W.'s service belonged to this Walter Churchill, potential parties interested in the china increase from the fancy china market to collectors of World War II memorabilia. When the market for a class of objects is poor, I suggest finding a related, and better, market based on provenance.
Here's my own example: Years ago, I purchased a service of monogrammed china: a large maroon "B" festoons the center, bordered by a maroon band edged in gold. I suspected this might have been deaccessioned from the Santa Barbara Biltmore, a Bowman-Biltmore property from hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman, who began the chain with his first New York hotel in 1913. I suspect the Four Seasons sold my Biltmore china upon purchase of the Santa Barbara Biltmore in 1987. Thus, if I were to sell my china service, I would select a market devoted to collecting souvenirs from fine hotels. Those of us with fine china services to sell must get creative with choice of markets.
Do my son and daughter-in-law want the Biltmore china? No, not the Biltmore, not the Stanwood Minton, not my Christmas Spode, not my Thanksgiving Haviland .... If the pieces won't go in the microwave or the dishwasher, there's little interest.
The value of E.W.'s small set? If there's no connection to a famous figure, about $150. With a connection to a more active market, such as WWII celebrity objects, perhaps $400.
T.O. of Ojai has a Chinese opium bed featuring giltwood and polychrome panels, with carved dragons, phoenixes and flowers, as well as a carved support, all surmounted by a canopy of rosewood fretwork. The bed is a prime example of a piece of material culture, and if it could talk, it would tell quite a story.
This late-19th century model was not just for sleeping. In fact, the word "bed" in Chinese means a piece of furniture in which to settle down. A raised platform on which to settle was actually invented by the Chinese during the Warring States Period, 475-221 BCD. Before the invention of a raised platform, Chinese sleepers and lovers lounged on a "kang," a platform in the ground made of clay bricks that were heated from beneath by a fire. The bricks were festooned with woven mats. The larger Chinese beds with raised railings, sides and sometimes little roofs developed from smaller Lohan beds.
Since raised beds were invented by the Chinese 2,500 years ago, Asian artisans have been crafting sumptuous carved and gilded bedchambers like T.O.'s, often enclosed by wooded panels and draperies for sleeping and other forms of entertainment that involve lying down. During the 1800s, the Chinese enclosed bedchamber came to be notoriously known as the opium bed. The draped and paneled sides shut out intruders and drafts (which an opium smoker would want, as the heat for the drug came from an oil lamp). Many were built large enough to enclose a sitting alcove and wardrobe space for up to six people.
In "How Collecting Opium Antiques Turned Me into an Opium Addict," Collectors Weekly's Lisa Hix interviews a collector of such material, Steven Martin, author of 2007's "The Art of Opium Antiques." Mr. Martin was drawn to such collectibles because, although opium use was widespread in the 1800s, these so-called decadent objects were subsequently stamped out by law enforcement's eradication campaigns. They were burned in cities all over the world. Mr. Martin says that original opium collectibles are scarce, beautiful and mysterious.
He draws a parallel between obsessive collecting and other addictive behaviors. As a scholar, he researched the period and practice. As a collector, he found opium pipes, gorgeous little oil lamps and other tool paraphernalia from France, Canada and the U.S., gathered, perhaps, by former missionaries or tourists in Asia in the late 19th century.
Such beds were often the centerpiece of the late 19th century opium den, the glamorous backdrop to a scene of ritual in which intoxication was achieved in peace amid beautiful surroundings with exquisite paraphernalia. There was a terrible price to pay. Lying in such a bed was necessary because that was the position you had to assume to hold the pipe over the low, squat vaporizing lamp. If you had money, the ritual was facilitated by your own attendants; if not, you found an opium den. The practice was prevalent in China in the early 19th century, especially after the British discovered that they could trade with the Chinese in opium instead of silver. Too late, the Chinese government realized that the ubiquitous and highly addictive drug was rampant; the Chinese waged war in the devastating Opium Wars of 1839-1860.
Opium beds were imported to American Chinatowns, where, in the 1860s, opium dens began to be frequented by San Franciscans, Chicagoans, New Yorkers and folks in New Orleans looking for an exotic thrill. Mr. Martin says by the 1880s, most cities on the East Coast and all on the West Coast had a den, which perhaps featured such a bed.
The U.S. government banned opium with the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, using as an example the opium dens of the newly annexed Philippines, gathering up piles of pipes and lamps and lighting a mighty bonfire.
T.O.'s bed was made for privacy and could be shuttered on all three sides as well as closed at the top to create quiet, stillness and dimness. Chinese oil lamps, expensive, beautiful and collectible today, might have been the only light source seen once the bed was draped.
I consulted Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland; the bed is estimated to be worth $600 to $900 and up.
P.M. has a dining table with 14 chairs that her brother in Santa Barbara suggests is from a historic Montecito estate. The date under the chairs is "1930" along with a name, "J.W. Wyllie." The set is huge! Without the leaves, the table is 44 inches by 96 inches; the leaves are 44 inches by 24 inches. Fourteen chairs fit comfortably around the table. The top has a copper-colored mirror insert, banded in copper about 12 inches deep. P.M. paid a hefty amount for the set in 1993 and would like to sell it, but has little idea of its history.
I can tell P.M. a few salient details about the style and its family. The stretchers on the table base are carved cactus leaves, and the finials on the chairs are little cactus flowers. Cactus flowers accent the stretchers. The set has a slight "pickled" tone, distressed, made to look like it belongs in a rugged ranch.
In the 1930s, especially in places like Santa Barbara after the 1925 earthquake, Spanish Colonial reigned. The style was drawn, in large part, from Bertram Goodhue's architectural designs, widely published throughout California, for San Diego's Panama-California Exposition in 1915. This style actually had two waves: the first, based on archaic idioms, and the second, geometric idioms filtered through a Deco lens.
Santa Barbara has two relevant examples of the first wave: the 1906 J. Waldron Gillespie estate, El Fureidis, and 1915 Dater-Wright Luddington estate, Dias Felices-Val Verde. Then, throughout the later 1920s, Goodhue's Spanish Revival style was colored by his tour through Egypt, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula, leading to the exotic gardens at El Fureidis. Later, Goodhue's Mediterranean Revival and Egyptian Revival architecture was seen in the Los Angeles Public Library, completed after Goodhue's death in 1926. Goodhue was the bridge between the classical Spanish Colonial and the next wave, tinged by Deco.
In the 1930s, this style was a synthesis of a simple form (notice the geometric form of P.M.'s set) with regional themes (for example, the cactus). This more modern idiom, fanciful and anachronistic, was called "California Rancho," a subset of American Art Deco. The secret to understanding American Art Deco is its basis in a concept: a concept of what a Rancho would have been or a concept of a streamlined train. The "Rancho" hybrid was Santa Barbara's entry into modernism via the door of revivalism.
In the 1930s, California Rancho furniture began to popularize in the West. Furniture makers like Monterey Furniture mass-produced straight-lined forms in pickled woods with bands of painted Spanish flowers, bold turned legs, accented with themed (like horseshoe-shaped) hardware. Mason Manufacturing Co. of Monterey, Calif., created Rancho California furniture, handcrafted in straight lines with floral decoration, from the 1920s to 1940s. This style is hot on the market; a dresser can auction for more than $3,000. So a set so large, and so obviously made for a huge dining room, was always expensive, designed for fashionable 1930s high society in Santa Barbara.
And, yes, I did find out the set is a native.
How? By the name on the chairs: "J.W. Wyllie." John William Wyllie was born June 23, 1884, in Aberdeen, Scotland. He married Tamar Ellen White Wyllie in England in 1909. He was buried on March 31, 1950, at the Santa Barbara cemetery. His wife died in 1965 and is also buried at the local cemetery.
Now, to Hong Kong for help! A distant relative of Mr. Wyllie's, genealogist M. Cowan, who writes for WikiTree, did some research for me and discovered his ancestor lived in Hawley Heights (named after San Francisco capitalist Walter N. Hawley) in the 1920s; Hawley Heights was the original moniker for the Riviera. Looking deeper, Mr. Cowen said J.W. Wyllie appears in the 1930 U.S. Census as an upholsterer who owned a furniture business in Santa Barbara. Mr. Cowan was thrilled to find a relative in Santa Barbara who made this wonderful set, posting it to his Wyllie clansmen.
Looks like we found the Santa Barbara craftsman!
The value of the dining set, based on style alone, is more than $15,000, but its value based on it being created by a Santa Barbara artisan has yet to be determined. Made for a Goodhue mansion? Or a notable Santa Barbara family? That would greatly increase value. Pending local provenance, I await any information on its first home to determine value. Help!
D.P. has a handsome pewter tankard enameled with the ensign or burgee of the Boston Yacht Club. The engraving reads "1904 Cruise 2 days Run, Won by __ ." No name is engraved. (Was this "lifted" previous to the race? Or were mugs issued before the race and turned in later for engraving?) Yet this mug is a good example of the importance of provenance, which means from where the object hails, who owned it and what it represents. Sometimes providence IS the value, not the material itself. We have here a few elements of provenance to analyze its value.
First, provenance is established in history. The tankard represents an early example of the tradition of the cruise. The year, 1904, is early because only in 1922 was the Cruising Club of America founded. And what an upper-class (male) tradition it was: The charter states "a person eligible for membership in the club must be a sailor and a gentleman of acceptable character and personality."
Second, valuable provenance is established because of specific origin. As contrasted to the tankard's two-day run, today the venerable Boston Yacht Club's cruise is a seven-day trip, from Portland, Maine, to Falmouth to Potts Harbor, to Sebasco, to Riggs Cove, then to Ebenecook Harbor. Marinas and restaurants are booked for the cruisers built for long-distance sailing, which excludes racer yachts. Cruiser yachts are often large enough to be permanent domiciles or at least large enough to house a crew.
Third, provenance is established because of a specific place: The Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass., was founded in 1866 by three young Dartmouth alums. When this tankard was presented, the BYC operated from six stations: those in Boston, Marblehead, Dorchester as well as Sheepscot Bay, Maine.
Fourth, provenance is established because of proximity to celebrity. The BYC has a distinct association with the America's Cup, winning it 10 times through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, three times in the 1930s and 11 times from 1958-77. BYC member Governor General Butler purchased the early schooner America in 1873. Mr. Butler and then his nephew saw to it that the America flew the BYC burgee for 27 years. BYC is the founding host of the National Disabled Sailing Championships.
Thus, the provenance of the mug is solid. The tankard represents a tradition, a place and a famous origin as, indeed, it is birthed from one of the nation's top yacht clubs in an early year for the sport of cruising. The tradition of a trophy mug to toast a winning goes back to the 16th century. A tankard with a thumb piece like D.P.'s was one of the earliest-known pewter forms. Those who collect yacht club memorabilia would pay for this birthright.
Let's contrast the object's provenance (one could also say pedigree in this case) with the material. Pewter, an alloy of lead and copper with tin, was collectible until it was discovered in the early 20th century that lead is a poison. It was one of the most common materials for plates and drinking vessels from the 16th through 19th centuries. Scrap pewter, unlike scrap sterling, is worth $3 to $5 per pound at a scrap yard, so the material does not figure significantly into its value.
D.P. could look into its value by mentioning its provenance to The Pewter Society, www.pewtersociety.org. Another resource is www.pewtersellers.com.
Finally, D.P., see if the maker was local to Boston or had some tie with the BYC. For example, perhaps the maker made trophies like this for 75 years for the club, which would increase its value. Look for the tankard's touchmark. If it says "pint" or "quart," a capacity mark, we will know it is NOT an American make, rather it would be British; by the legislation of those imprints, D.P. can date his pewter to the mid-19th century or later. By the way, on the oldest pewter, look for touchmarks of quality metals used, such as the crowned rose or crowned X. Condition is often an issue with pewter; because of its easily dented softness, pewter, when damaged, is devalued.
D.P., because provenance is site-specific, market is important. The buyer who would pay the most for your tankard is most likely someone with a close association with the Boston Yacht Club. Better to offer a piece like yours to Boston-allied people who long to have it than to post it to thousands on eBay.
The value to the right market? $200. The value to the general market? $40.
T.B. has a large glass tumbler/vase in cranberry with a small white painted figure of a young boy with a hoop and rod. He is dressed in 19th century knickers and a velvet coat with ruffles. This painting style on glass goes by the amusing German name of Quarkmal. Quark, as chefs know, is a dairy product from Germany that has a sour cream consistency and is used to make those fabulous German cheesecakes. The paint on the glass looks like quark.
This thick, white painted technique on glass was used to depict children at play. Called "Mary Gregory" glass, it's an example of how a material thing can operate like an international fad, crossing borders, with its sweet, sentimental style borrowed from the Victorian era.
This tradition dates back to the late 18th to early 19th century, when Czechs of German origins dominated the glass industry. The famous Czech glasshouses Riedel and Moser made beautiful glass; each father in a glass concern would teach his young son the art of painting Quarkmal. Boys as young as 10 painted these delicate white-on-white images of children their own age.
A fine painting on glass is not as easy as it sounds. A base figure in white Quark mixed with ground glass was first laid down. Linear details were then added after the original figure dried, like the hoop you see and the grass under the figure's feet. The piece was then fired. Then little detail dots were added, then the piece was fired again. Each firing increased the likelihood of breakage, but the painting remained durable, fused to the glass after firing. Fine Czech Quarkmal was an upper middle class collectible all over the world, until World War II.
In 1947, Czechoslovakia became a communist country, and every glassmaker with a German name was expelled for not being Czech enough. Czech glass houses were nationalized and only clear, unpainted glass was produced under the brand name "Crystalex." Quarkmal seemed a lost art. But it was not lost; rather, it was moving.
Collectors in England and America had discovered Quarkmal through another source. The American glass painter Mary Gregory (1856-1908) painted in the Quarkmal style for the Boston and Sandwich Glass Co. on Cape Cod. Her most valuable wares are the fanciful paintings of children in Victorian outfits on glass lampshades. In Grapeville, Pa., the Westmoreland Glass Co. issued a line of Quarkmal after Mary Gregory's death in the 1920s called "Mary Gregory" glass. The most popular color was Blue Mist, a semi-transparent light blue. Cranberry was the second best-seller.
Czech glass houses after World War II saw the popularity of Mary Gregory glass in the U.S. and Britain, and resumed the manufacture of their original invention, Quarkmal. For cost reasons, instead of double-firing the glass, artisans were trained to layer on a coat of Quark and then remove areas of paint to form the figure. The art was then accomplished in one step. Instead of tinting the gather of glass in the molten state, the red color was "flashed" on clear glass, for example, to create cranberry glass.
Back in Pennsylvania in 1957, the Westmoreland Glass Co. welcomed two brothers who were forced to leave post-war Czechoslovakia because of their German last name, Pohl. The brothers reintroduced Quarkmal back to Westmoreland, and after a second wave of "Mary Gregory" glass, a popular seller from 1960-84, Westmoreland closed.
Quarkmal persisted. Artists from Westmoreland opened "Treasured Editions" featuring those little white-painted children. American collectors bought "Mary Gregory" glass, believing that the art dated from 19th century Cape Cod, where Ms. Gregory began the American tradition of Quarkmal. Even though it is a German technique, most dealers will tell you that "Mary Gregory" glass is an American art form. And because of the belief that it is American and those are American children, the glass has seen some high prices.
T.B.'s paper label under the bottom of the glass reads "Made in Western Germany." Most "Mary Gregory" glass is not made New England, nor in Pennsylvania, but is German or Czech, dating from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Her glass is about 30 years old and not as well painted as the exquisite detail of pre-war WWII Quarkmal. And that means it is not as valuable.
"Mary Gregory" glass, if original to Cape Cod, costs hundreds and thousands of dollars. But 20th century German/Czech is not as desirable. T.B.'s glass is worth about $60 to $75.
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
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter