Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Quagmire of Value

QUESTION: I just inherited a lovely old armoire from my mother. As we were taking stock of her things, an antique dealer, who had come to look at some other items, told me he’d give me $1,000 for it. I really love the piece and am not considering selling it, but I would like to know its value. Can you help me?

ANSWER: While the answer to this person’s question may sound simple, in fact, it’s far from it. What type of value does she mean–retail value, insurance replacement value, fair-market value, auction value, or cash value? In the end, each of these values will be a different amount. Other factors determining value are age and condition. So where to begin.

Let’s start with retail value. This is the price for which an antiques dealer expects to sell an item after marking it up from the price the dealer paid for it in order to make a profit. This amount can  be anywhere from 20 to100 percent of the dealer’s purchase price.

The amount of money it would take to replace an item from a antiques shop or online if it were lost, stolen, or damaged is called the insurance replacement value.

The price that an item would sell for on the open market between a willing buyer and a willing seller is known as the fair-market value. This is also the value that’s used when an item is donated to a charity or is part of someone’s estate.

And when someone puts an item up for auction, the price that an appraiser feels the item should bring at auction, based on comparison of like items and recent other auction sales, is known as the auction value, but has nothing do with the actual value of the item.

However, being told something is worth a specific value is meaningless if the appraiser doing the appraisal has no knowledge of the item itself or the market for it. And auction prices, such as those eBay are not an indicator of true "worth," since many of these sales prices are inflated many times over in the heat of bidding up an item. And a verbal appraisal is worth nothing without a written one to back it up, especially in the case of settling an estate.

To learn more about how to value your antiques and collectibles, read my article, “What’s It Worth?,” on my antiques Web site, The Antiques Almanac. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Beauty of Christmas Kugels

QUESTION: I came across a heavy white glass ornament with what appears to be some sort of decals on the bulbs. Also each one has a colored stone–almost like birth stones–indented into the ornament. All the tops are a gold finish. I have seen a lot of ornaments but none like these. Any ideas?

ANSWER: It sounds like this person has discovered a kugel, a type of heavy glass Christmas ornament made in Germany from about 1840 until 1914. The word kugel means “ball” in German. The first ones were smooth, heavy glass balls that were too heavy to hang on anything but a stout pine in the yard, so people hung them in their windows.

Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the kugel to compete with the glassblowers of neighboring Bohemia who had perfected blowing glass beads lined with lead mirroring solution with produced a brilliant shine. And though he was able to duplicate the lead mirroring solution, he couldn’t hand blow his kugels thin enough. The result was heavy pieces of glass shaped as balls in a rainbow of colors in sizes ranging from an inch in diameter to over 30 inches.

Originally, the glassblowers hung their kugels with bits of wire. After blowing a glass bubble, they snipped it from the blowing tube which resulted in a small neck with a hole leading to the inside of the kugel. They ground the neck down leaving just a hole and attached a decorative brass cap, held in place with wire arms that spread apart inside the glass sphere. Finally, they attached hanging rings to the caps and hung them with wire hooks.

It wasn’t until 1867, when Greiner-Schlotfeger’s village built a gas works that he had a steady, hot, adjustable flame, enabling him to blow thin-walled glass balls. From that point, it was a simple step to blowing glass into cookie molds shaped like fruits and pine cones. While the glassblowers still called them kugels–more specifically Biedermeierkugeln, referring to the Beidermeier Period in which they were made–they technically weren’t any longer and soon people called them Christmas ornaments.

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became all the rage among the wealthy. American retailer, F.W. Woolworth, saw these ornaments on a trip to Germany, but was reluctant to order any for his stores–at least at first. To his amazement, his original order sold out in two days.

For more information on kugels, read my article on antique Christmas ornaments.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tiffany Lamps Go for Big Bucks

QUESTION: An art dealer came to our house to look at a painting and noticed the Tiffany chandelier hanging in our dining room. A year and a half later, he called back with interest to purchase it for a significant amount in cash. I did some checking and discovered that an original Tiffany back in 1977 sold for $22,000. What is the best way (if I was even to consider selling it) to get the most value for what it's worth?

ANSWER: This is just one of many questions I have received about Tiffany lamps. The recession has got everyone looking to sell items that may have some value. And with the Antiques Roadshow highlighting some valuable Tifffany lamps, people have gotten dollar signs in their eyes.

Tiffany Studios, founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany, designed and produced the only authentic Tiffany lamps. Historically, Tiffany, himself, never actually made any of the lamps, but just oversaw their production and design. He personally guided the lamps that came from his studio  between 1899-1920 through all stages of their creation. This not only included the shades, but the handmade bronze bases as well.

Tiffany’s magnificent lamps were an instant commercial success. Wherever they appeared, they received prizes and awards. He was the first to design lamps to be operated using the new electricity, then only affordable by the wealthy. But once his lamps caught on, several other American companies, including Handel, the Pairpoint Corporation and Quezal, emulated his designs.. While Handel and Pairpoint concentrated upon creating innovative lampshades, often, but not always, in the style of Tiffany, Quezal helped to satisfy the increasing demand for the iridescent glassware, called favrile, popularized by Tiffany in America.

The name "Tiffany" has become a generic term for windows, lamps, and glass of–or imitating–the period. However, there were many other firms in the U.S. and in Europe doing similar and in many cases nearly identical work. This has lead to a great deal of confusion, and much work by other companies has been sold as "Tiffany,” often with false "Tiffany" signatures added to it.

It’s important to note Louis C. Tiffany and Tiffany Studios did NOT mark or sign many of their lamps in any way. However, it’s often easy to forge Tiffany signatures on similar-looking period or reproduction items. Many genuine Tiffany pieces that weren’t signed originally have probably had forged signatures added to them to increase their worth and make them easier to sell, as well.

By his vision and energy, Louis.C. Tiffany succeeded in blending classical motifs with bold new techniques in glassmaking to create a distinctive American art form. The demand for Tiffany lamps among today's collectors attests to the lasting value of his work. The table lamp with the wisteria design pictured above recently sold for over $600,000. If that doesn’t get dollar signs in people's eyes, nothing will.

If you have what you think may be a real Tiffany and it doesn't have a signature, send a photo and description of it to Christie's Auction House to have it verified.

To read more about Tiffany lamps, go to my Web sites: Writing at Its Best and The Antiques Almanac.