H.B. got lucky at the Assistance League Thrift Store, she left that great little shop with a dish for which she gave under $20. She sends me pictures of that octagonal porcelain dish with raised edges, blue and red on a field of white; the center has the famous Japanese motif of the bat and the clouds, stylized into a geometric pattern. The underside of the raised rim features blue tracings painted on the white of rolled scrolls (signifying official letters of State) and chrysanthemums (conviviality). The base features Japanese characters. H.B. wants to know what she has, mentioning two small chips to the rim.
The story begins on July 8, 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. sailed into Kanagawa, opening the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda, enforcing a treaty establishing trade and the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. merchant trading ships. The Nation of Japan had been closed to outsiders since 1637. The mid 19th century fine goods merchant suddenly produced Japanese ceramics, metalwork, lacquerware and silks for his eager customers. Think of the displays of Japanese wares after 1854 at the European and American Industrial Expositions and World’s Fairs, not the least of which was held at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The Japanese government had presented a huge display of antique and modern Japanese material culture, seen by thousands; a rage for anything Japanese hit the U.S., leading to a unique Japanese American hybrid style called the Aesthetic Taste and a vast increase in trade between the US and Japan.
Featured in Philadelphia for the first time was the style of porcelain nabbed by H.B. called Imari-ware. Americans drooled over the bright bold geometric colors of bright iron reds, cobalt blues, grass greens accented with golds. In comparison, American porcelain up to the 1876 show was based on European (French & German) flowery patterns rendered in dainty pastels. A sea change in the world of color and design, Imari colors and the naturalistic, abstracted bird, flower and animal heraldic devices caught the American intellectual aesthetic community by storm. And Imari has never gone out of style.
However, the origin of the Imari style is not purely a Japanese phenomena; the style harkens back to 1542 when Mendez Pinto of Portugal accidentally landed in Japan. He was shocked to find an orderly and gentle culture, but was equally shocked that the Japanese were not Christians. A lively exchange of patterns and colors was exchanged between the thousand-year tradition of Portuguese majolica and Japanese porcelain. Although the Japanese knew the chemical composition of porcelain, Europe did not. So the Portuguese traders brought a certain European sensibility to the Japanese potters so that their wares would be palatable to European tastes, and Imari was born. The Portuguese over the ensuing years endeavored to spread both Christianity and European trade, and the trade at the forefront of the economics was porcelain. Trade was so good that by 1637 the Japanese government kicked out all foreign traders and shut down Japanese borders to foreign travel of both insiders and outsiders.
The name Imari is also an accident, as it is the name of the port on Deshima Island, which although in Nagasaki Harbor, was occupied by the Dutch, who were export traders in the 17th and 18th century. The Dutch shipped bright colored presentation pieces of porcelain to the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, the Hanovers and the greatest collector of porcelain in the world at the time, Augustus II of Saxony (1670-1733). Augustus, by the way, is one of the reason porcelain was “discovered” or “invented” in his kingdom.
H.B.’s piece looks early 19th century because its design is restrained and elegant. The later 19th century Imari ware porcelains became opulent and complex, bordering on the gaudy. Another clue to its early age is the fact that the Imari designs are hand painted as opposed to the later transferware stenciled designs and heavy gilding. Earlier Imari is more delicate in form, the slip (the clay) is whiter, and the glaze is heavier. As the 19th century wore on, tastes became more Victorian and American buyers used Asian porcelain for the show–factor. Larger scale pieces were in demand, often pieces which by their bulbous shapes featured Japanese design on European forms. The small size also belies an earlier date, as well as the rendering of the chrysanthemum shapes, the emblem of serene Japan. H.B., your porcelain is worth $300-500 and would be worth more if the piece were not chipped.
You might find it odd to see an elephant holding up a thousand flowers with its trunk. That’s the theme of this little Art Deco lamp, sent by DS. She writes that this little piece (91/2”) was a gift from her dad to her mom one anniversary in 1954. She has lit it every night since. She believes her dad bought it at Dane's Lamp Shop in Santa Barbara.
The globe shade is a good example of glass millefiori, one of the oldest decorative glass techniques known. A glass bead millefiori, called a mosaic bead, was found in the 7th century Anglo Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. The ancient technique of millefiori was then lost to the world until rediscovered in the 18th century.
Here’s the technique: tiny glass rods pulled lengthwise are bound together, making a glass sheaf or cane, and the multicolored rod ends show up when the sheaf is heated, pulled, and then cut diagonally. By the 19th century these rough canes were made in glass houses in Italy, France and England for export to the US to make little pieces of art like DS’s lamp. These rods could be blown into that globe shape or heated together to make paperweights and vases.
One of the great things I love about writing on material culture is the chance to see beyond the object into the tenor, mood, and philosophy of the time in which the object was made. The 1920’s was an era of the machine, progress, movement, skyscrapers, exoticism, travel, the wealthy, the City, and the spirit of fun. That spirit of adventure took many forms, not the least of which was drugs, booze and sex. Somehow, Nature and the Wild were things to be tamed. Mountains were conquered. This is the era of the National Park, the African safari, the establishment of a Zoo in each large city.
You may notice that the elephant who stars in this lamp is tame: he is balancing a ball, as in a circus act. The idea of nature, tamed, was a theme dearly beloved in the Art Deco period. Animals were an artistic trope of the period, especially those that could be rendered as sleek, massive, or geometric. Often in sculpture, the balance of power was equal between the man and the beast. This was not the case in Classical sculpture that had a healthy belief in the superiority of the natural world.
We learn much about the design of an era when we look at the lines and shapes popular in previous periods. In this case, Art Nouveau predated Art Deco. Art Nouveau's qualities were asymmetrical and organic: a favorite theme of the Nouveau period was the flowing–haired fairy-creature, whose scanty clothing catches on wild landscape features as she frolics. The favorite female of the art deco period is the elegantly lean, beautifully dressed urban lady leading an arched-back animal on a leash. Gone is naturalism: symmetry and mass and strong masculine geometric forms prevail. Mass is flattened. This is the era of early Cubism, dynamically seeing the world as geometry. This is the era of Bauhaus design, the novel uses of glass and concrete.
The world is tamed in Art Deco: Elephants balance on balls, muscular men restrain wild horses. Skyscrapers rise to unheard of heights. Trains break speed records. Cars race across continents. Boxing is the sport of choice. A famous sculpture of the period shows a buff Hercules recumbent holding a panther at bay by its throat. Gazelles, jaguars and Borzoi dogs likewise were tamed by sleek tall sophisticated urbanites. The leash, the balancing act, the playful but nasty imp, the snake charmer, the seductress all point to (human) control of nature in sculptural form.
DS’s lamp plays upon the theme of balance: the tame elephant balances a ball of light, and similar millefiori lamps feature a patinated metal Harlequin imp-girl kicking that ball. Another popular model shows two nude arched-back females facing outwards balancing the ball between the smalls of backs. All these models featured a marble plinth: marble was the stone of choice, slick and shiny.
And the idea of a lamp itself was also a creative experiment in the late 1920’s. Indoor electric lighting was rather a novel feature, so lamp designers became adventuresome with the concept of a lamp.
Ds's little beloved lamp is a period piece that is emblematic of this era as well as the innovative use of electricity as an element of an art piece. The value is $300.
K.R. has two pictures of English cows. These, K.R. are not cows, but oxen, The great-celebrated Durham ox, a castrated bull who became universally admired in all Anglophile countries in the early 19th century.
Your mezzotints tell a story of a peculiar English, early Victorian, way of treating people and other animals. This theme is the concept of breeding: pedigree, circa 1804, the year the great ox was carted all over Britain to thousands of agricultural shows. 1804 was also the year Wordsworth wrote I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.
The Durham ox perhaps wished to be lonely as a cloud, but he was painted by scores of artists: in 1801 by George Cuit of Richmond (the ox was five years old), then painted by John Boultbee in 1802, and by George Garrard, from which artist K.R.’s print was copied. The inscription reads, “To the Right Honorable Lord Somerville President of the Board of Agriculture, this plate of a Holderness Cow is respectfully dedicated by the Lordship’s obliged humble servant George Garrard.” In 1802, 2000 prints of this beast sold to the English public, as well as porcelain and stoneware emblazoned with his image. Staffordshire created an entire blue and white table service.
The ox represented the pinnacle of breeding, a new science of the time. Born in 1796, he was the third generation bred for “type,” the Shorthorn. To show the superiority of science over raw nature, the ox was bred for massive proportions. He weighed over 3800 pounds, the weight of an average American car. He had the rectangular silhouette of a boxcar. The “ideal” type lives with us still in such animal venues as the Westminster Dog Show. The Durham ox had the “it” factor so sought after at the aforementioned dog show for each particular breed. In the case of the Durham ox, the “it” factor attracted artists painting his bulky likeness.
As a genre, portraits of stock animals, ad nauseam, were an English passion. This was an era when the gentleman farmer represented the top of the English class system embodying the “scientific” principles of husbandry. The best of all breeds was termed the “improved” breed. Another famous painting of the white ox by William Ward states, “The Imperial Tees Water Breed by John Nesham, Esq. Bred and fed of Houghton Le Spring.” How beasts were sired was important as well as what they imbibed. Nature could be manipulated.
Proof of this manipulation of farm animals was the thousands of English prints from the early 19th century, not photomechanical reproductions from the 20th century, which can be worth a bundle. K.R. has two prints, one, a Holderness Ox, and one, a Durham White Ox by William Ward, both after Garrard, at 23” x 18” each. K.R. writes that The Museum of English Rural Life is interested in acquiring the Holderness Ox print, dedicated to Lord Somerville. He asks about the process.
First, K.R. must look at the paper to establish the age of this print. It should be “laid,” little lines formed by wires of the screen through which the paper is sieved. In good condition and the paper white, Christies sold such a Garrard Ox print for $3,300. Secondly, K.R. has to come up with a price. Let the museum know he's done his research and knows the fair market value around $3000.
They will respond in one of two ways. No, we do not buy, we accept tax-deductible donations only. Or, yes, we buy, but that figure is too much. Then the negotiations can begin. K.R. pays for the shipping, insurance (at $3,000) and is beholden to a museum inspection before he sells. He should ask for a contract of artwork lent “on approval” to the museum and look it over with his attorney carefully. K.R.’s other option is to offer it to Christies which has a record of selling prints after Garrard. Keep in mind museums may not pay at all or as much as an auction for works of this price range and caliber, but museums honor the donor in their acquisition catalogues. Even though a Garrard print of the ox has sold for around $3000 at auction, there may be no reserve (the price at which an auction house will pull the piece). This means it may sell for whatever the day brings, and then K.R. will pay about 20% of the selling price back to the house. Good Luck with your OX!
SB sends me a beautiful lace collar that belonged to her grandmother Elsa. Such collars were expensive in the mid-19th century and a young married middle-class girl would've been hard pressed to buy such a treasure. Interestingly, Elsa wore it proudly in the 20th century as an older matron. I wondered WHY.
Antonio married Elsa in 1893 in Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany. He had already established himself as an attorney in New York City; son of a prominent banking family, with offices in Leipzig and New York City, Knauth, Nahode and Kuhne, Antonio brought his young wife to a fine New York brownstone. Antonio died before Elsa in 1915.
Why did Elsa choose to have her portrait painted with this collar in the 1920’s? Perhaps because of the social status it concurred. Lace has traditionally been a sign of aristocracy. The best lace came from Flanders in the 18th century: noblemen’s inventories often mentioned lace cuffs.
Handmade Belgian lace of quality from the 16th to the mid-19th century was used for collars, cuffs, corset trims and accents for the hair. Flanders lace was so sought after that British lace makers in the 18th century supported its prohibition: the upper-classes had to have it, thus innovative manufacturers developed machines to weave the lace in 1819, refining the machine-made lace process again in 1847.
What determines quality is the denseness of the pattern. The finest mid-18th century lace has an equal proportion of mesh to the intricate pattern, a more intricate “cloth work.” Hand workers wove, braided and twisted the tiny threads, bent over their work for months.
Two types of collars were worn: one, exposing the décolletage, called a “Berthe,” were worn off the shoulder. Elsa’s collar is a “Big Berthe,” a scarf-like collar. This kind of collar was popular until the mid to late 19th century. Thus, Elsa’s collar may have been a gift dating from the 1880’s.
I sourced a helpful website to research the collar, and found the connoisseur Elizabeth Kurella, who writes about the link between great lace and royal tastes: “I never before understood the mystique of lace – and royalty stories. Now it made sense. The myths and legends had nothing to do with doilies, bun warmers, centerpieces and placemats in tourist shops. Antique lace was a very different substance…. The difference between a Rembrandt and a roadside painted picture of Elvis.”
It takes a lace connoisseur to determine quality, so I phoned Elizabeth Kurella, sending her photos of Elsa’s collar. This, she told me, is a beautiful Point de gaze Big Berthe from the late 1880’s, a distinctive needle lace produced in Brussels from the 1860’s-80’s. The key to this dating is the distinctive central rows of the raised petals. The Berthe was a larger fuller circle that was worn off the shoulder from the 1870’s on. Ms. Kurella referenced the movie The King and I, when Anna dances in her magnificent, off-the-shoulder gown. Before she approaches the King, she slides off her Berthe. This is a formal collar, meant to show off a graceful neck, bare shoulders and décolletage. The phrase “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” came up early in my conversation with lace expert Kurella. Was the Berthe meant to conceal or reveal? Definitely “flaunt,” she said. Elsa was not ‘out of style,’ flaunting it in the 1920’s.
Why would a lady from the 1920’s wear an expensive collar from the 1880’s? Ms. Kurella explained that lace collecting, especially amongst the high-society in NYC, was “a big deal pre WWII.” The Rockefellers, for example, built a collection of art, and antique lace, too. The Needle and Bobbin Club was established in 1916 in New York to promote interest in antique textiles and lace. High society women in NYC collected many a pricey lace flounce at the time that Elsa flaunted her collar.
Is Elsa’s collar valuable? Ms Kurella said that October saw two major antique lace auctions, one at the finest French auction house, Drouot, in Paris, offering hundreds of lots of antique lace, some dating to the 17th century, and the other at Augusta Auctions in Sturbridge, offering select treasures in lace. Connoisseurs bid on and bought Belgian lace from all over the world. In fact, a notable market for antique lace from Belgium is Japan.
Ms. Kurella said Elsa’s collar is in good condition and a great example of a Point de gaze Berthe: she puts value at $200-500, depending on the buyer.
SL sends me a photo of a gorgeous Japanese tansu that reflects, in a remarkable way, how a piece of furniture can tell the social history of a culture. Tansus, Japanese cabinetry pieces, are portable, lightweight and multi-functional chests, as well as changeable for certain seasons, additional household members, and certain festival days. Zen Buddhism teaches that emptiness is a virtue: therefore, the emptier a room, the more functional it really is. Thus a room with very little in it, just what’s useful and necessary (and beautiful), is a full, valuable room.
We think of furniture as a fixture in a room: I can’t even move my bedroom dresser to vacuum under it, let alone see the top of it for all the family photos and jewelry boxes. Tansus generally are a series of stacked boxes and cubbies just so they can be moved. Tansus reflect very old ways in working with one of the prime elements, wood. Ancient Asian philosophy tells us that five elements determine the relationships between all things: earth, water, fire, wind and wood, with wood at the top of the pentagon. Woodworking traditions of Japan date from the 5th C. Shinto shrines.
The wooden boxes and chests originated in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) and there’s a good reason for the development of interior storage furniture during this period. Japan was becoming a prosperous country with a growing middle class, and both country houses and city houses were becoming more reflective of the houses of the wealthy elite, houses built in a more permanent style called Shoin architecture.
Most prosperous homes had a special “storage locker” attached to the property just so furniture could be cycled into and out of rooms: these masonry wall structures, called Kura, stored family possessions, which were seasonally retired.
A primary wood used for tansus, Paulownia, is not only light and beautiful, but, as it turns out, is sustainable; the trees are plentiful, even today, and its leaves are animal-edible. The wood doesn’t crack, warp, or split and is fire resistant, and will air-dry (no chemicals needed). Paulownia became the standardized lumber for tansus.
The range of tansu forms is many: SL’s is for clothing; but there’s also kitchen tansus, bedding tansus, and merchant/peddler tansus. My favorite tansu form is the “step” tansu that are graduated like stair steps and may be used to climb to the next level in a house. The name tansu means cabinetry itself, spanning the many forms, to store all manner of treasures from swords, valuable documents, tea utensils, fine kimono, food, tools, and textiles.
One doesn’t need dressers without a fair collection of textiles, and during the Edo Period, under the rule of the Tokugawa family, cotton fields flourished to clothe the urban dwellers of Edo and Kyoto. Urban populations demand specialty crafts, and tansu production soon broke into three separate craft guilds, the cabinetmaker, the hardware blacksmith, and the lacquer finisher.
The cabinetmaker benefited, in the 17th C., from the development of a “one man” ripsaw from which he formed single thin planks from boards; also invented was the pulled plane. As the merchant and craftsman class thrived, the martial samurai class became fragmented. Economic power meant urban buying power: the cotton garments formally only worn by the Samurai class began to be worn by the lower classes, as cotton was easier to maintain than hemp or paper garments. Thus, the merchant and craftsman class needed clothing storage, entering in the age of the tansu.
I have always admired the spare aesthetic of these tansus, which in their simplicity and functionality pre-dates our modern Bauhaus philosophy of less is more. The hardware itself is the masterful embellishment, providing texture and depth. In fact, the hardware monger was greatly respected as an artisan. Also, note that today is a great time to invest in these lovely pieces as for some reason the market is very approachable price wise. Somehow, designers never quite realized how well these pieces fit with our current craze for midcentury modern, especially the tansus in the lightest of woods. You can find a great tansu for under $300.
The golden age of the tansu ended in 1912 with the introduction of compulsory public education. No longer was a young man articled to a craftsman as an apprentice as a matter of course. Western forms of furniture became available and desirable, and Western styles of dressing required different forms of clothing storage. SL’s is a fine pre 1912 example and worth $800-1,000.
Dr. Jumba, the evil scientist who created Stitch, spoke to the Galactic Council about his creation: “he is bulletproof, fireproof and can think faster than a super computer. He can see in the dark and can move objects at least 3,000 times his size. His only instinct? – to destroy whatever he touches!” This poster exemplifies the “new” collectable marketplace: artwork based on technology and modern myth, given cult status by adults who were children in the late 1990’s. This piece is not exactly art and not exactly technology; yet add nostalgia, and you begin to understand the pop culture marketplace of today.
CB sends me a giclee on canvas, which reads: “Stitch at Aladdin’s Palace, Las Vegas, 8 pm July 10-11, 2004, tickets at $15 each – all seats reserved.” We see Stitch, a Disney character, dressed in a high-collared white jumpsuit like Elvis Presley. Stitch holds a guitar just like Elvis. The size of the piece is 16” x 12”, a limited edition of 95. The artist has ink-signed Tricia Buchanan-Benson, numbered at 26/95.
The animator behind this illustration is a woman. Disney Studios boasts a long history of male animators, and not many females. Tricia Buchanan-Benson wrote to Walt Disney in 1988 at age 11, asking him to chart an animator’s career course. He wrote back! She graduated Loyola Marymount with a film degree since a degree in animation didn't exist. She became successful as an animator for The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Dilbert.
CB purchased this at a Disney Gallery “years ago.” This piece is a consumable object as well as possessing perceptions of time and the pull of childhood nostalgia.
I had never heard of this Disney character Stitch. His popularity dates to the early 2000’s. Stitch, too, has a fictitious creator, the aforementioned evil Dr. Jumba. In the movie Lilo and Stitch, Dr Jumba tell us that Stitch has been created by him with such ‘destructive programming’ that Stitch is provoked to “back up sewers, reverse street signs and steal everyone’s left shoe.” (In fact Stitch eats only left shoes.) Stitch, like other Disney characters, has a child-like quality in spite of his malicious behavior. Stitch finds a friend in Lilo, also a naughty child, and a social outcast of sorts. Lilo believes in Stitch and seeks to retrain him away from his harmful ways, and here’s where we get back to the ‘Elvis’ symbol in CB’s artwork. Lilo trains Stitch in how to be a good monster by showing him Elvis Presley films. Thus, CB owns a concert poster, with Stitch posing as Elvis!
Stitch, a monster, lacks Elvis’s perfect looks and suave demeanor, yet is trained well by Lilo, who employs both her love and an Elvis role model. Stitch takes on the character of a pet dog, is adopted by Lilo and stays with her on Earth.
If this sounds like an unknown fairy story, it might be because you are a Boomer. But late 1990’s early 2000’s pop culture has a cult following among younger generations. I didn’t realize it because I didn’t recognize it: pop-culture of 2000 is now hot. There’s a definite reason for this. It is called nostalgia.
Disney memorabilia has always been collectible, but today contemporary memorabilia has a cult following. That’s because of the compression of time and sentiment into that powerful market force called nostalgia. If CB is a millennial, she might have been 16 in 2004 when this artwork was marketed. For CB, this image of Stitch is both evocative and compelling. Conversely, I have a hard time imagining that anything from 2004 can induce tangible nostalgia. For me, a nostalgia-inducing object dates from the 1960’s. But today’s sentimental collectibles, because of the time-warp of technology, have a shorter and faster threshold. A beloved Disney character poster from 2004 is an antique and a collectible.
The value of this giclee (essentially a fine art lithographic poster mounted on canvas) is $500. If CB offers to sell it, it may be snapped up by a millennial who remembers “old days” and “vintage movies.”
The artwork is a testimony to an era (early 2000’s), and an example of a style of animation that may remind a thirty-something of the technology and narratives and of their youth. Unbelievable to those of us in our late 50’s, but this poster is a lucrative collectible object today.
J.A. sends me photos of a lovely silver multi-formed epergne (flower holder) with the unique hallmark “Tuck Chang,” a 19th century silversmith from Shanghai, China. When we think of silver, we think of England, stamped with those sets of hallmarks. Yet Chinese Export silver has a long 18th, 19th, and 20th century pedigree, and is usually heavy and ornate with Chinese motifs: bamboo accents, dragons, and T’ap-p’o (the Chinese form of Pagoda). This piece is a great example of the cross fertilization of early trade in the decorative arts.
These designs will often seem fanciful creations of the Western idea of China; Western tourists purchased souvenirs understandable to the European eye from shops in Canton, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Wealthy Chinese buyers didn't fancy this silver made for tourists.
Much Chinese export silver lined the ballast of ships returning to Europe and America, and those ships took weeks to get to ports in the West; likewise, tourists to China in the 19th century spent about a month sailing to China and stayed much longer than our modern two-week vacations. In fact, wealthier tourists came with the intention of staying in China long enough to have a massive tea and coffee service custom handcrafted by Chinese silversmiths.
However, by the dawn of the 20th century, even the Chinese hand-crafters discovered mass production, and instead of a custom handmade repoussé tea set, with just your idea of a Chinese tea party pictured upon the teapot, silver was made in recognizable patterns. Therefore, 20th century Chinese export silver is in less demand and of lesser value than 19th century pieces.
Notice I don't describe this material as sterling. It's not, it's silver, and the silver content in the mixture differs from maker to maker. Some of the best makers mixed metals with silver to come close to 925/1000 (sterling) as possible. Regarding hallmarks, you can see Anglicized maker’s names written in English, like on J.A.’s epergne, (“Tuck Chang”), but you can also find what looks exactly like British forms, such as Georgian style rat-tail dessertspoons, bearing pseudo-British hallmarks. Look closely to see the Chinese maker’s name in the typical four “touch” marks common to English assay markings; Wong Shing (Canton, 1810-35) is known for these “pseudo” touches. For the American market, Chinese silversmiths stayed away from the popular British Georgian shapes, and appropriated the famous “fiddlehead and shell” pattern of the mid 19th century.
I was surprised to find flatware forms made in the late 19th century, unknown to a Chinese table at that time, such as turkey “stuffing spoons” and a gravy “strainer” spoon, and services that would've set a Chinese diner into a quandary, such as an eight cup set of boiled egg servers on a handled round stand. Also I found a Chinese export vinaigrette. A vinaigrette, pioneered in the 16th century, used until the 19th century, protected a lady’s sensitive nose against the daily stenches of early city life. In those days even the Thames was a sewer and clothes were hardly ever washed, let along the bodies underneath. A small silver box with a grill in the middle held a sponge laced with vinegar, herbs and spices. By the way, if you needed stench protection and couldn't afford silver, lower class ladies made a ball of gum pounded with rose water, apple pulp and wax to hang on the front of their bodice. This small box of silver for Chinese export is an example of a European form made in China for Western habits and fashions.
J.A.’s epergne is a similar white elephant. A formal Chinese dining area never boasted an epergne. And people don't see them today, unless they set a very fancy period-throwback table. If J.A. does, J.A. could use it for two purposes on her dining table, or combine these two uses. She might place flowers in each of the “buds,” or she could place “sweetmeats,” like sweet delicacies of sugar and honey, with candied fruit, nuts, sugarplums or bonbons into the buds. If she wanted a showy table, she might set the epergne with flowers accented with candy sticks. Along with silver bride’s baskets for receiving calling cards after a bride is betrothed, this silver form has gone the way of my porcelain fancy gold-rimmed formal holiday china, which my married son swears he will never countenance in his house. The value of J.A.’s epergne, depending on the troy weight, is approximately $500.
RM has a little box, 4 inches wide, 8 long and 5.5 inches tall, made of “composite.” The medium is not wood, not gesso, not plaster, but a combination of all three, pressed into a mold. On the very top of the box is a beautiful naked woman, seductively lying on a seabed. “What is this?” RM wants to know. She says it “called” to her, 20 years ago, in an antique shop in Missouri, and she answered the call with $75.
Originally, boxes like this were used to hold celluloid collars, and were enjoyed by men as they chose their (detachable) collar for their daily dress shirts. That’s why the box is 8” long, the length of a doubled- over collar.
Looking into the decorative motifs molded into the box, we see swordfish, coral, starfish, kelp, fish of all kinds, octopi, the female cast in celluloid. Why this “ocean” iconography?
RM, the box “called to you” because the lady on the top is no lady, she’s a siren. She’s not a mermaid, she has legs, and mermaids do not call to people. Mermaids are generally nice creatures, sirens are not. Sirens are dangerous, and sailors were lured to their deaths when following their beautiful, irresistible calls.
Remember Odysseus (Ulysses) who wanted to hear – first hand – the siren’s song? He bade his men tie him to his ship’s mast, and plugged his mates’ ears with wax. Homer tells us Odysseus struggled to join the bewitching sirens.
RM’s box dates from the late 19th century. when one of the few ways a man could enjoy a nude was to mythologicalize her. He then enjoyed a moral lesson along with his pleasure: female beauty is dangerous, corrupting, tantalizing. As long as female nudity was a lesson to be learned, such an objet d’art was socially sanctioned.
A painted by the young artist William Etty, called “The Sirens and Ulysses” was gifted in the mid 19th century to the Royal Manchester Institution. It had remained unsold because people considered it too decadent. The scene shows three white-bodied nudes, singing and waving to Ulysses’ ship; the nudes are perched upon the decaying bodies of vanquished sailors. Etty was accused of going too far; called indecent, because he painted his sirens as contemporary women. Gone was the usual Greek draping. Gone was the traditional Greek bird-woman imagery. These sirens looked just like the siren on RM’s box, a real woman.
Designed for a man’s dresser, circa 1880, this box would both remind and warn a young man that females are seductive and dangerous. The moral: “stick with nice girls!”
From this long tradition of the beleaguered feminine comes the very definition of the “Siren Song.” That song is beckoning, utterly mesmerizing. A man has no power but to stay far away from such temptation.
The great novelist and poet Margaret Atwood’s poem "Siren Song" says it best:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible.
The song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the bleached skulls.
The song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the other’s can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me…
[off] this island,
looking picturesque and mythical…
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique –
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
This poem deals with both the languid and lonely life of the beautiful siren on her island, and the conquering wiles of her calls for help. A favorite myth of the mid 19th century, images of the siren featured in both high and low culture. This box would have been considered low culture because instead of a precious metal medium, this is made of “composite,” cheap and machine made. The introduction of celluloid for the nude is a low culture substitution for ivory. This box wasn't expensive when produced in the late 19th century.
But what a story, told in the middle of Victorian approbation of sex and sensuality. The box is a great example of the uses of Classic Greek art and story to make something taboo acceptable. If ancient Homer wrote it, the subject was okay for the mid-19th century. RM, your sea-siren box is indeed a treasure box, and worth $300.
MAM sends me a photo of a fascinating Chinese table lamp that is a four-sided gently sloping rectangular shape in colored glazes on white with floral enameling, setting off a raised relief of a Buddha.
I have never shared with anyone the secret of the ‘hidden treasure’ potential of the Chinese vase lamp. Here it is: in the early days of electric lamps, (1920’s) many very valuable old Chinese vases were denuded of their floral arrangements from the front parlor and conscripted to be “electrified.” If you have a 1920’s table lamp, therefore, you might have a Ming Period (1368-1644) vase.
When I search the thrift stores, I always look at lamp bases because almost any handyman can take the lamp apart and reconstruct the vase. I found, years ago, an old Chinese tobacco leaf HUGE barrel shaped lamp base patterned with those bright green rows of leaves. I had the drill hole professionally filled and threw away all the electrical apparatus. It sits today as a vase on my dining room table.
Occasionally an amateur 1920’s lamp maker (and almost all lamps were custom made in home workshops in the early days of electricity) kindly leads through the top of the vase and made a niche for the old silk woven cord in the neck fitting. Those are the lamps to grab, as someone knew they were valuable. However, more often than not, the treasured vase has been drilled through the base to allow for a shaft or cord. Although this would devalue a 19th century Chinese vase, it may not significantly devalue a rare early Chinese vase. You will be shocked when you start to look at old table lamps. Craftsmen transformed everything from Bronze sculptures to giant glass pickle jars from general stores into lamps in the early 20th century.
The first quarter of the 20th century drilled away on expensive, rare vases because early home lighting via electricity was also expensive and rare. The Western Electrician of 1890 wrote “in 1878 the electric light made it appearance in San Francisco and was exhibited at the Palace Hotel.” That was the first public display of a lighting fixture in California; think of all the lamps we have in our homes today. You can imagine how early 20th century householders loved to show off the newly invented light bulb situated in a suitably impressive vase.
MAM has exactly this configuration of a lamp. Her vase is 19th century Chinese Shiwan Pottery, which is a form of high-glazed (in colors) earthenware, from a group of ancient kilns near Canton. As opposed to the finer, hotter fired, more desirable porcelain, earthenware was never made for the royal families of China. Shiwan became known as the people’s ware. Perhaps MAM’s vase was potted at the 17th century Nan Feng Kiln (the Southern Wind Kiln), 32 meters long with 26 rows of stoking holes. This shape is a dragon kiln, a long tunnel snaking up a hillside; the shape was pioneered for pottery as early as the Waning States Period (475-221 BC).
The area where MAM’s vase was thrown in the Foshan area goes back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Distinctive heavy weight pottery with a thick glaze of gray-white, over which additional glazes are added in shades of blue, rose, black and a uniquely toned blue/purple/red glaze called “the kingfisher” are the characteristics of Shiwan or Shekwan (Shek = rock in Cantonese) pottery.
Now what does the imagery on MAM’s vase mean? In Buddhist China, that figure on a lion and the figure on an elephant is Wenshu, who lives on one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China, Mount Wutai in Shanxi. Foguang Temple shrine to Wenshu was built in 1137. Wenshu’s mountain paradise in North China is in caves on a mountain in the ‘Northeast’ when seen from India. In India, this Buddha of the East Mountain Teaching is Manjusri. Indian pilgrims came to China to visit Manjusri at Wutai Shan as early as the 7th century.
Not only is Wenshu the giver of illumination to the mind’s eye, but his steed signifies the restraint needed to control the wild mind. MAM, your Wenshu was believed to have written a poem about reincarnation with his monk:
Drumming your grandpa in the shrine,
Cooking your aunts in the pot,
Marrying your grandma in the past –
Should I laugh or not?
Aside from the marvelous history and imagery, your lamp, purchased years ago at a Montecito estate sale, is worth $400.
JF sends me a picture postcard from the Panama Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco, circa 1915. What follows is a key to valuation of postcards in general – and a big surprise about this particular scenic card.
How does one judge the value of vintage postcards? The first value-factor is subject. Look for subjects that represent change. Here’s an example: the Alps have not changed. A small town, 1900 to today, has changed. The smaller the town, the rarer the card, because cities were best represented.
Picture postcards are more valuable that greeting postcards: those Valentines and Christmas postcards are not as sought after as view cards, especially when those view cards show modes of transport, especially cars, early 20th C. Those cards are ‘cross collectibles,’ meaning car enthusiasts will buy them, as well as post card collectors. Another cross-collectible card is one that features outlandish styles of the period, appealing to costume collectors and card collectors.
‘Cute kids’ postcards are collectible when the kid is holding any other animal OTHER than a dog or cat! Animals dressed as humans other than dogs or cats are also collectible. Another genre is the ‘comic’ postcard, which usually is non-PC and often downright insulting in some way. An example of such a card is an elderly Floridian walking is ‘pet’ alligator on a string. There’s the whole sub-genre of Black Americana cards.
Another type of comic postcards is the politically themed image: take, for example, the postcard picturing Adolf Hitler as a saint. Unbelievably, some postcard collectors look for ‘catastrophe’ postcards: an example would be a flooded small town with a dead cow on a rooftop. That card will sell for $35.
Another valuable category is early advertising cards- especially those for strange machines, like products for feminine enjoyment, if you catch my drift. When valuable cards are backed with linen or printed on leather or compressed wood, they can be more rare and valuable.
Earlier than the categories above are “real” photo postcards. These are pre- 1910, and may picture a live-- or even dead ---baby. Yes, you read right. Since infant mortality rate was high, a memorial to a deceased child was often such a card. The problem with identifying these photo postcards is that photographers put their names and studios in the square where for the stamp, and you’ll not want to peel a valuable stamp!
Early postcards (pre 1920) did not have space on the back for both addressee and message- just space for addressee.
Check the maker of cards 1910-1920; look for the Artura imprint. Collectors consider this the Golden Age of postcards. Cards with the Kodak imprint are from the 1950’s ---and not so valuable.
Now to JF’s great card: it is a World’s Fair Collectable, and a great subject. This is a rare night scene. The image is an illuminated building, a wonder, in 1915. This shows the lighting of the Fair’s Tower of Jewels. Illumination of this magnitude was unheard of; when fair visitors saw this spectacle at night they were moved to write poetry.
The feat was credited to General Electric Illuminating Laboratories, under inventor Walter D’Arcy Ryan. He was hired, because in 1907, he had illuminated Niagara Falls at night, with the installation of batteries of projectors with the power of 1,115,000,000 candles. The huge crowd gathered to witness this event gasped as the spotlights froze the great cascading cataracts.
For the San Francisco Fair of 1915, Ryan designed an approach to dazzle the night: he lined edges of buildings with incandescent light. He floodlit facades. Then he added depth with rose-colored lights inside the porticos and terraces. He lit interiors of buildings for that warm glow. But his piece d’resistance was the Tower of Jewels, dominating the Fair at 400 ft. To make his floodlights ‘pop’, he needed something to set off the white light. He contracted Austrian craftsmen to facet huge cut glass jewels, hung for maximum refraction over the 400-foot facade. The 130,000 glass jewels were delivered on 2/15/15, 3 weeks before the official start of the Fair. Workmen hung miles of these jewels, called Novagems.
The management of the Fair did not know if this scheme would work. When the combined floodlights and shadow- hued gels shown upon that Tower on opening night, the jewel-sparkle was caught in the lagoon below. Imagine that sight in 1915, when few people owned an electric lamp? JF’s card, because of rarity, subject, and condition is worth $50.
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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