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).
G.R. uses a pair of Polish Judaica candlesticks for the weekend Shabbos family meal. They date from the last quarter of the 19th century. They're marked with the Polish double eagle and a number — 874 — which means that the sticks are made of a metal containing 87.4 percent silver. Compare this with sterling silver, which contains 92.5 percent silver.
Polish silver of this era was known to be graded into three levels of silver content to create three levels of value in the marketplace. G.R.'s sticks aren't of the highest silver content, nor are they of the lowest. They are right in the middle. This frugality will impress you when you read who made them, and for whom.
G.R.'s grandmother brought these Shabbos sticks with her on the boat from Poland. No doubt they were ceremonially special to her, a young girl, but perhaps even more so because they were crafted by her father, a silversmith in Lublin, Poland. The silver stamp gives his name: CJ Manmin, a shortened version of his full name, Chaim Josef Manzumen. Later, U.S. authorities changed the family name to Mann.
Chaim Josef was born and died in Lublin. But in 1922 his wife, Sheva Glika Kastenbaum, immigrated to join their children, who had already come to Chicago, where she died 10 years later at the age of 73. She might have been a widow at this time.
G.R. has no records of her great-grandfather, the Polish silversmith of Lublin. But I can tell her that he was a very courageous man because he was a Jewish silversmith, and more than likely a talented artisan with a good business head. For, in Europe, Jews were not normally allowed to become silversmiths because being a Jew meant no entrance to the strong guild system. Thus, Chaim Josef had to be quite something in Lublin.
Many Jewish ceremonial objects I've seen were made by non-Jews on commission for Jewish families. Take, for example, a comparable pair of Shabbos sticks marked with the name of the smith, "Fraget," made in Warsaw, at the same date, by a French smith. Most telling are the mistakes made in Hebrew inscriptions because non-Hebrew readers made the objects, and could only copy the script, which is difficult enough.
The last part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century held more than turbulent times for Jews, and, therefore, objects such as these (called Judaica in the market today), of silver, were not displayed to the general public. Synagogues held their own repositories of artifacts for education of the congregation to admire in ceremonies, but in 1878 at the Exposition Universelle de Paris the public viewed 82 such Jewish ceremonial objects. That was the first public show — in or out of a museum — on record. And these things have been around a long time. That tells you something about Judaica, not only the necessity of secrecy but also the tradition of secrecy.
I can date the sticks because, by the end of World War I, Poland, which had been divided into parts of Russia, Austria, Prussia and Germany, became the Republic of Poland in 1918. Only then did assay marks become established as a standard in 1920, and these consisted of a head with a kerchief, a number for the level of silver content, and a letter for the town where the object was made.
G.R., your great-grandfather was indeed a trailblazer in one sense, but not in another. The tradition of Jewish artistry in gold- and silversmithing is mentioned as early in time as the writing of Exodus 39.3: "and they did beat the gold into thin plates, and cut it into wires, with cunning work, to do service in this Holy Place, making the Ephod" (the priest's vestment).
The value of your Shabbos sticks is $1,800 for the pair, but as you say, you would never sell them. Now you know how very special they are. The major market for Judaica has grown astronomically since the days of secrecy; both Sotheby's and Christie's have annual auctions of Judaica, and the major market for such objects is New York. Many Jewish families, who have had to give up their ceremonial treasures, over the years have created quite a strong market for the repatriation of Judaica. You are lucky to have not one but both of your sticks.
PS sends me a large red Chinese temple vase with two huge black painted dragons curling along the sides. The vase stands about 36” tall, the base material terracotta. Two features are its iconography of the dragon, and the scale. The shape is termed “high shouldered” as the volume flares to the top bulge before it closes in on a significantly rimmed mouth. These vessels were perfect for storage; the footprint is small, the taper is balanced, movement is as easy as tipping and rolling when sealed: this vessel might have held much grain or rice at one time in the last 100 years. Chinese ceramics are found all over the world, and this was as true in the 17th century as it is today. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) pieces are even found in Turkey.
Chinese ceramics are difficult to date. The fine arts in China are grounded in a very different philosophy than European arts, and this philosophy has to do with longevity. Chinese forms are classic; the shape of PS’s vase could date from the late Neolithic Period, when the potter’s wheel was invented (220-210 BCE); the wheel facilitated uniformity in shape. A beautiful shape was the goal, unchanging with each fluctuation in style or taste of an era. Therefore, treasured forms are the purest old forms, created in traditional ways.
However, old things look old. And the paint surface on PS’s vase is fairly new. Unless this piece was never used, an old paint surface would never look this clean. I date the piece to the early 20th century.
Furthermore, motifs on Chinese art are valued for their classicism; this motif is a dragon pair. So appropriate for a vessel, the dragon is “Yang,” associated with water. An old myth tells the story of the four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Yellow, the Black and the Pearl. Seeing people on earth suffering a drought, these four dragons scooped up the sea in their mouths and shot the water into the clouds, making rain. The sea god was angered, and commanded four mountains to imprison the transgressors. This created China’s four mightiest rivers as the dragons wiggled inside their mountain jails. PS’s vase pictures the Black Dragon, the embodiment of the Heilongjiang (the Black Dragon River) in Northern China.
People born in the year of the dragon are thought to be lucky. Emperors wore dragons embroidered on silk robes in gleaming gold, springing from clouds heavy with rain, gliding through the waters of the earth.
The origins of the mythical beast are unknown, although some scholars believe the dragon references the rainbow, the serpent of the sky. Dragons carved in jade have been discovered in sites of the Hongshan culture (4800-3000 BCE).
PS’s vase is a good example of low-fired pottery, or earthenware, as distinct from high-temperature fired porcelain. Low-fired vessels are heated to 950-1200° C., lasting through the ages: although made of clay, they can be buried and reborn. Good examples of such wares are the terracotta warriors accompanying the tomb of the First Qin Emperor in 220 BCE. Porcelain has a slightly higher concentration of a clay mineral called Kaolin, silicon layered mineral which makes it strong and non-porous. Porcelain is a type of ceramic that is fired at 1250-1400° C. Forty-five centuries of pottery survives, as the material was always useful and aesthetically pleasing; ancient Chinese ceramic wares are some of the oldest pottery in the world.
PS, all you need to know about Chinese ceramics can be learned by understanding China’s three finest types, consistently produced through the ages. Firstly, Sancai , with its distinctive three-color glaze of green, yellow ochre and beige; Jian tea-ware, with its black heavy glaze, created by iron-rich molten oxidation in the clay of certain areas; and Ding or Ru ware. Ding is pure white with a fine glaze; Ru is fine with a crazed or crackled glaze.
Finally, one significant feature of PS’s vase is its silhouette of the dragon in black, similar to Ancient Greek Red or Black figure vases from Athens, 6th-4th century BCE. How it differs is that PS’s vase states a concept, which is the embodiment of Yang, personified by the dragon. A Chinese ceramic vessel doesn’t narrate a tale, such as the Greek Exekias vase of Ajax and Achilles, engaged in playing a board game. In Chinese art, the philosophy, the concept, trumps the historical narrative. Lightly tap on the vessel and you will hear a resonant ring, which indicates no hidden cracks: PS’s vase is worth $600.
The Personality of the American Home, an expert’s look at Generations of People Who Own ‘Stuff,’ is a result of five years of observations of appraiser’s clients, spanning four generational groups. What it narrates is a story of a shape-shifting change in the concept of HOME.
The objects collected in your home are valued – yet that value is changing. Value is generationally relative to the speed and changeability of life in the 21st century.
Attitudes about “home” historically have changed through the generations; what your grandparents thought was necessary for a proper household is not what your kids think. The value of a material possession is no longer its WORTH.
‘Worthy’ value is defined in 2018 as contributing to the ease of living, the range of adaptability, style, utility and functionality of a home. These descriptives do not apply to treasures such as formal china, cut crystal, or plush Persian rugs.
Taste, in what defines, warms, and decorates a home, for a family and its guests, is shifting, along with the winds of a new aesthetic.
Value was once implicit in certain objects we lived with. Now, objects hold explicit values- just think of the technology in your Millennial son’s home!
View this chart Elizabeth created to illustrate this change in Value and Taste.
ES sends me a porcelain-headed doll with jointed limbs. Her grandmother brought it with her when she immigrated to the US in 1916. The doll wears modern (polyester) clothing, and her hair is a re-make of an older, albeit blonde, wig.
My regular readers know writing about a doll tortures me. However, because of my phobia, readers insist on sending me dolls. Occasionally one is interesting enough to write about.
ES’s doll’s body is composition- a wood-gesso compound, easily molded into a form. Older dolls before composite wood were made of stuffed leather bodies.
A feature that adds value to the turn of the century dolls is the treatment and artistry of the doll’s eyes. Blue eyes are more rare and desirable. Blue eyes are more difficult to manufacture than darker eyes because of the inclusion of the thin painted black lines upon the glass inside the eyes, meant to imitate the human iris. Eyes are set around a black insert to initiate a human pupil. To complete the hideous eye, the colored part of the eye is set into a round ball of white glass.
The value of a doll is often dependent on the complex mechanism of the ‘sleep eye’. A sleep-eyed doll indicates a mimic of sleep when the body is prone. A small weigh is attached to an “L” shaped bar connected to the eyeball, changing with direction of the head. The outside of the glass eye ball is painted with a flesh tone. It is my hope that this practice camouflaged the pure white eyeball that a little girl would likely see if the eyelid was not painted.
ES’s doll has less desirable painted-on lashes. The best dolls had real hair lashes. Eyebrows, however, were always painted.
Longevity of the eye mechanism is an issue with hair lashes. If the eyeballs are drilled to insert fine hair into the eyeball, the protein in the hair can be highly prized by insects. Thus, these dolls tend to have a de-nuded, skinned look because their lashes have been eaten away. (Picture that if you dare.)
Another arbiter of value is the expression of the mouth. The best of all German porcelain dolls, such as ES’s, made by Simon and Halbig, has a pouty, yet sweet small mouth.
See the marking on the back of the neck, indicating the model, and the structure of the face. This doll has the marking ‘4000’ with a star shape enclosing a “PB,” one of the best models. From these markings, we can determine the year of manufacture, 1909.
Notice the rosebud delicacy of the smile. This is a most desirable mouth because this doll does not have a full cheeky smile. (Boy dolls occasionally were allowed to have such a smile, but not girl dolls.)
Now there are open mouth smiles and there are closed mouth smiles. Open mouth smiles enable the viewer to behold teeth if you are lucky enough. Because realism was much prized in turn of the century dolls, open mouth with teeth was a premium. A doll can have too many teeth, considered ‘genre’, portraying country bumpkins or guttersnipes.
A Respectable amount of teeth is four. Two up and two down, and in reality because the mouth was so small that’s all it could hold. On the best dolls these teeth were not painted onto the lips but the lips were molded around a dentrice holding a small set of little porcelain teeth. (Another reason I'm haunted by dolls.)
ES, take the higher value characteristics of your grandmother’s doll: a porcelain head with human hair in good blonde condition, a jointed composition body, blue sleep eyes, painted lashes as opposed to human hair lashes, (if they were extant and un-eaten those would be considered classier), a pouty half-smile, and four teeth. All these add up to a fine doll from the first years of the 20th century.
Notice that the doll looks like a 3-4 year old. Baby dolls were not considered all that respectable yet.
The final value characteristic is the size of the doll; this one is 26 inches, a large size when you consider the size of a little girl. Families sometimes showed their wealth with a purchase of a doll bigger than their daughter.
What would make the doll more valuable would be the existence of the original clothing from 1909. These dolls are not all that rare because, surprisingly, many still survive. The value of your doll is $400.
K.K. writes: "When my mom died after living with me for over 8 years, I thought I'd prepared. NO. The next 10 months were hard, emotional. It's one reason I put objects in storage. I knew I wasn't prepared to sift through everything. Now I'm ready. How do I go through my mom's stuff?"
Coincidentally, L.R. also wants advice for those who have an elderly mom or dad: What to do with a lifetime accumulation of a parent who is either too frail or whose emotions are too powerful to be of help?
Like K.K.'s mom, who was not able to downsize as her health declined, my mother, too, has been worried about leaving a burden.
L.R. writes that she was faced with downsizing after the death of a family member. I, myself, am traveling to Chicago this month, where I grew up, to pack my 89-year-old mom's house. Even though she has whittled down her collections of art and antiques, I find Mom is more attached now that her health is failing.
L.R. suggests that she wants to downsize because she needs a change of scenery to help with the grieving process. K.K. says much the same: As grief subsided, she feels she can tackle her mom's objects in storage.
This short article gives K.K. and L.R. some tips for dealing with these intimate issues. Overarching this theme is the fact that change in an emotional time, symbolized by loved objects, is difficult.
My mother was recently airlifted to a hospital close to my brother on the East Coast. I was elected to form the family plan: what was going into storage, who was going to inherit what, and what Mom's future living quarters might contain. All this with no assurance of anything. At the time of her airlift, she felt much too weak to think about her home of 30 years, and I packed only a small suitcase for her.
A few days ago, she felt well enough to tackle the first step in this process: She read my photographic appraisal of ALL her possessions. That was bittersweet. I do this for a living, and yet, as mom said, I never did it for HER. Here's what I learned:
Tip No. 1: When you do an inventory for your elder, list objects in the locations they occupied in the household. If Mom can't remember something, I reference a certain drawer in the china cabinet.
Tip No. 2: If the family agrees, make a shorter inventory of all the objects in a room-by-room fashion with fair market values (that is, what things would sell for as second-hand material) and make a copy for all the grown children and grandchildren of the family. Be transparent.
Tip No. 3: Agree on a period in which to digest the inventory, both for your elderly parent and for the heirs. Decide if age trumps interest. In our case, my Mom's kids' selections trumped the grandkids. Select the most computer literate family member to make an interactive spreadsheet on Google Docs. I suggest using a ranking system: number 1 is listed with an object of absolute desire, 2 for medium interest, and 3 only if the object is to be donated. Be ready for pushback once your elder sees what the kids want: Mom started this process ready to give much away. Now she wants to control object dispersal to family.
Tip No. 4: Bring the elder parent into a one-on-one discussion with care. Ask for a recorded, written or dictated document of your elder's wishes before you do so. Be prepared to offer both sides of a long-distance move. In the case of a treasured table, I gave the cost of crating versus the cost to leave with a family member.
Tip No. 5: Be cautious of subtext. What you are preparing for is what K.K. prepared for — a loved one's decline. Speaking to my mom about giving things up, she heard that subtext; she said, "It would be easier if I died." I gasped, but offered "The fact that we are planning your new room interiors means that you have a future house!"
L.R. suggests that divesting means, for her, a change of scenery. I tried that phrase on my mother. She replied that she has no energy to create a new environment, so to make it easy, she needs to keep everything. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of objects even the smallest home can contain, all or nothing is an easier concept than many small and painful decisions.
Tip No. 6: Ask professionals. I spoke to a few professional packers. An elder parent is used to finding objects in certain places, and this knowledge led to this suggestion: use technology. Take photos of objects where they live. When packing boxes for storage, that photo is then affixed to the box; all boxes are labeled with their origin locations (for example, "second shelf china cabinet").
Tip No. 7: When Mom and I first talked about the move, she wanted her kids to have everything; now she can't let go. Many of us have therefore reviewed her inventory. How do you speak to Mom about letting go? My nephew, our diplomat, said he would like to talk with Mom about a desired object's family history. Therefore, if one of us wants something, THAT photo will also be on the box. Mom will be getting a file of those photos and those names.
Tip No. 8: Consider renting two storage lockers — one for the most necessary of objects, such as clothing or computers, and another filled with the furnishings for a small apartment. We rented two 10-by-10 units so that we could find labeled boxes easily.
Tip No. 9: Assign family members who are good at tasks to help. My brother Dave is an IT professional; I have been in contact with him about the computer and paper files. My brother Paul is an engineer, perfect to oversee the logistics of the storage lockers. My sister Nan is good with space and color; she prepared a few suggestions for "mixed use" furniture adaptable for various-size rooms. Because Mom had lived with a bookshelf for 30 years, she couldn't see it might be used in the future for kitchenette storage.
Tip No. 10: Write this where you can see it: "Grant me, please, that I can face whatever awaits, as constructively as possible, for my mom, and for the rest of us. Without movement, there can be no change."
T. A. from Santa Barbara has an interesting quandary regarding the Art Deco sofa pictured. Is its antique value worth the cost to reupholster the piece? Or should T. A. buy something new, or donate it and take the tax write-off? Her new daughter-in-law plans to visit, and she is a designer….so T. A. wants to update the tired look of the retro fabrics she once loved.
Let’s look at the antique value in comparable sales of a 1930’s hardwood framed sofa with similar typical glamorous flaring arms and bulky, generous lines, which bespeak comfort. If this sofa sold at auction, buyers would undoubtedly take into consideration the necessity of replacing the ‘unique’ fabric T. A. chose in her 1960’s retro decade. At auction (which I regret to say, Santa Barbara has none: T.A. would have to ship her sofa to the San Francisco or the LA area to get into an auction) a sofa like hers will typically sell for $800-1,000, less 20% auction house commission. However, most auction houses will not take upholstered furniture unless it is rare: auction houses like the Bay Area’s Clar’s, or John Moran’s Discovery Auction (an entry-level auction for first timers), sometimes have a limit of $1000 potential earnings. The best way to find out if an auction house might be interested is to go to their website and send them a digital photo. Checking eBay, the asking prices for Art Deco era couches are around $800, and that does not include moving the beast. My clients have been discouraged by using Craigslist for selling large furniture, so she could always consider donating and taking the tax deduction, if she could use that deduction in her tax bracket. She would be advised to speak to her accountant about what I estimate to be a $1000 deduction.
On the side of keeping that sofa, consider the hardwood frame, the mahogany trim, the solidity of the seat, and the use of real screws and dowels in the construction, as opposed to the staples used on mid-market furniture today. This piece has lasted 80 years and there’s a reason.
Re-upholstery offers T.A. her choice of fabric, filling and trim. All those selections cost money. Average fabric will run $40, designer/better fabrics are $70 and up (per yard). An average sofa will need 16 yards; I wager T.A.’s will use 18-20. At $40 per yard, that’s $800. Labor will run an estimated $1,000, not to mention something extra for fabric if T.A. picks a repeating design, since patterns at seams should align. Looks like there’s fringe at the bottom of the sofa; that’s extra. She might need to pay a premium for the tufting around the arms.
Doing the math, her sofa re-upholstered will run $2,000, which is, coincidentally, the top price paid for such a sofa of that era (with no notable designer pedigree). That’s because the market today is not favorable to flamboyant lines, preferring cleaner geometry. She can buy a new sofa for less, but looking at affordable ($2000 or less) sofa options, she’s going to regret seeing her hardwood framed sofa leave her house for the softwood frames used in big box store’s furniture.
Being an old furniture Luddite myself, there’s some valuable provenance involved in her Art Deco sofa that she may not know of. Her sofa from the 1930’s reflects a period that gave birth to the dramatic lines of the Chrysler building in NYC. Art Deco was born from various design elements: Cubism, Fauvism, Louis XV & XVI Revival styles and Asian aesthetics, which blended into this unique style, associated with Paris, New York, and Hollywood (think Noel Coward). Her sofa partakes of the world’s first international style of design that influenced architecture and interior spaces in the tall 1930’s buildings of great cities. The luscious lines and outward embrace of the arms reflects the elegance and extravagance of the era that glorified in fine things after the Great Depression, screeching to an abrupt halt with the austerities of World War II. Style ever after was influenced by functionalism and the demands of industrialized mass production. Her sofa (with, perhaps, mohair fabric in a jewel tone) would have been at home when the Deco style was first seen by the world, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.
J.E. has a great-looking plaster sculpture of a lovely camel standing squarely on four skinny legs, bending his neck to gaze at his viewers. This 3-foot unsigned piece is painted matte black over white Plaster of Paris and is reinforced with rebar inside the animal's hulking body. A chip off the leg allows us to see the white plaster and the support.
The plaster piece rests on a plinth, which is part of the sculpture and also plaster, although the plinth is painted gold. Think of the Art Nouveau movement and the Arts and Crafts style of gold picture frames of the first quarter of the 20th century and you will find a commonality of line. That's one key to the age of the sculpture. But the other indicator of the age and the era is the camel itself.
The dominant style of the first quarter of the 20th century was orientalism, caused by the discovery of the exotic ways of Egypt, Arabia, China and Africa. People over there were not "civilized"; they were more animalistic, they were devious and mysterious and addicted to forbidden things, and had less reason to wear clothes, the thought was. The East was seductive. Remember the flowing robes and dark eyes of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik? Anything Eastern was beguiling to an era that had just thrown off the shackles of Victorianism.
The East was celebrated in the late 19th century music that retold "One Thousand and One Nights": think of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Respighi's "La Boutique Fantastique." Theater promoters rode this Orientalist wave, such as the famous ballet aficionado Sergei Diaghilev , who used Picasso and Bakst to design harem pants, belly shirts and turbans for dancers such as Nijinsky.
Ladies' fashions rode the wave as well. Gowns were "al la Turk," or featured the high Greek waist and slinky folds. Designers like Fortuny draped his naked females with miniature Greek-style pleating, very revealing, and worn without a corset (gasp). Dresses of flowing silk from the East were ornamented by flapper-style headbands of a single peacock feather.
The bronze sculptors of the era jumped on the sinuous curves and discovered a ripe opportunity to depict half-disclosed nudity from 1900-20. Famous bronzes of this era usually paired wild exotic animals with female Turkish dancers; tigers and nude gypsies; nude dancers with Ostrich fans; and, of course, as we return to the camel — female slaves picked for the harem of Bedouin warriors mounted on — yes — dromedaries.
A father-son team of animaliers (this is the fancy French name for a sculptor who works with the animal form) made a name for themselves in Orientalist sculptures of exotic creatures. These were copied widely. These artists loved the awkward but compelling line of the camel. Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) sculpted his "Dromedaire debout," which will sell today in bronze for more than $5,000. His son, Alfred Barye (1839-1882), kept the flame alive with his "Mounted Moor on Camel," selling for more than $4,000 today in bronze.
Yet we cannot speak of sex, animals and wild abandon without speaking of Vienna in 1900. We do ourselves a disservice if we ignore the current in the Viennese air that produced the highest of this type of sculpture, with its wild animals and great stallions mounted by naked women and virile men. These are the famous Vienna Bronzes of the Austrian School of 1900-1920. And, yes, I meant to point out that Freud must have seen these bronzes, as they were the rage in Vienna in his day.
The most celebrated of these Austrian sculptors in 1900 was Franz Xavier Bergman (1838-1945) and Rudolf Chocoka (1888-1958). Their camels, horses, bulls and other virile animals go for thousands in bronze today, although they are small enough for a bedside table. And if the sculpture included a nude erotic pose of a female form with the wild animal, that's exactly where these were displayed.
J.E.'s camel is a middle-class version, cast in plaster, lacking the sex appeal of the Vienna School but containing the same reference to Eastern exoticism, which is, of course, embodied in the aloof and silent camel. Plaster sculptures could be purchased in 1900 for one-quarter the price of bronze and still had the oomph when seen on a mantelpiece. Few of these were signed but most were copied from famous bronzes of the day and sold to the frowning but eager middle classes. J.E.'s camel is worth $350.
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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