Monday, August 30, 2010

A Question of Time

QUESTION: I have inherited a very plain tall clock made in Philadelphia. How can I tell how old it is?

ANSWER: To tell the age of a tall-case clock, or grandfather clock as it’s more commonly known, you need to first look at the dial. The early ones at first showed 24-30 hours. Owners wound them at the end of that time by pulling the driving cord down.

In the earliest clocks—those dating from the 17th to early 18th centuries—the hour circle appears in a silvered ring with a doubled circle appearing within the numeral circle.

Many old clocks have only an hour hand. Some have both an hour and a minute hand. Even though clockmakers had used minute hands since 1670, most clocks, except the most expensive ones, didn’t have them. Early tall-case clockmakers gave their hands a fine finish and often made them the most decorative part of the clock. The hour hand was often the most elaborate and the second hand, if the clock had one, was sometimes long and graceful. Later, when clockmakers introduced white dials, the hour and minute hands became even more ornate and some even had a smaller second hand.

Originally, tall-case clockmakers made their dials of metal with a matt center circle. By the mid-17th century, they added ornamentation around the edge of this matted center, engraving birds or leaves to form a border showing the days of the month. They brightly burnished this date ring as well as the rings surrounding the winding holes. Silvered dials, containing no separate circle for the hours and minutes, appeared in 1750. Instead of a matted center circle, these dials featured an engraved overall pattern in the center circle. Many early tall-case clocks also had a small separate dial showing the days of the week.

Dials remained square until the beginning of the 18th century, at which time clockmakers introduced the arched dial. Dutch clockmakers found good use for this extra space, filling it with decorative figures and animated devices such as a see-saw or a shipping rolling at sea. They also added a moon dial, thereafter common on many tall-case clocks, which displayed the phases of the moon under the dial’s arch. English clockmakers, mostly in Yorkshire, went one step further, creating a globular rotating moon dial.

Clockmakers usually only made the works of tall-case clocks. They subcontracted the making of the cases to coffin makers, who used this as supplemental income when business was slow. During the second half of the 17th century, casemakers employed walnut to build mostly plain cases. The Dutch introduced marquetry to the fronts of the clock cases, using woods of different colors and grains.  Mahogany didn’t come into general use for tall-case clocks until about 1716. At first, casemakers imported it from Spain, then after that supply ran out, from Brazil.

Before 1730, the doors of most tall-case clocks were rectangular, but around that time casemakers included an arch in them to match the arched dials. The earliest clocks didn’t open with a door. Instead, the entire hood–the top part of the clock–slid backwards revealing the works.

For more information, read “Grandfather Time” and also visit the Web site for Bowers Watch and Clock Repair and read about the works of tall-case clocks in their clock section.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bed in a Box

QUESTION:  My grandmother had a “bed in a box” that we used to sleep on as children when we would come to visit. My brother has it currently, but I amin the process of trying to get it home. We believe it is between 100-200 lbs and I think it is walnut. It is a 3x3 foot cube 23 inches deep and it is just a cot that rolls into a two-doored cabinet. I have always loved it, and it’s one of the few things I wanted when my grandma passed. I was wondering if you have any information for me because I can't find anything about it.

To save space, furniture makers over the 125 years or so have come up with some ingenious devices. The “bed in a box” the person mentions above is just one of the unique ways that city dwellers found to get more people into a room. When immigrants began arriving in greater numbers in the latter part of the 19th century, whole families often had to live in one room–eating, relaxing, and sleeping in the same space.

The first person to become aware of this problem was Sarah Goode, the owner of a furniture store in Chicago. She invented a folding cabinet bed that when not in use looked like a desk standing against the wall and became the first African American woman to receive a U.S. patent for her invention on July 14, 1885.

Since city apartment dwellers often had little space for beds, Goode and others created variations on what we now call the “hideaway” bed. Goode’s design was far more elaborate than a bed-in-a-box. Her folding bed unit had hinged sections that were easily raised or lowered by an adult.

Cabinet beds, like sofa beds, are another innovation along the same lines. Essentially, when the cabinet folds down, it changes shape revealing a bed. You'll also notice that the design of the furniture is similar to that found in early Sears catalogs. Many of these pieces were manufactured in Indiana. Another variation was the rolling trundle bed. This large rectangular box rolled under high late 18th and early 19th-century beds for storage during the day. At night, an adult or child would pull on a rope and drag the bed out for sleeping.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Spoonful of Grace

QUESTION: We ran across a chair in an antique shop and the dealer referred to it as a "spoon chair". It was wooden with a high narrow back, no arms and a fairly wide seat. Can you give us any information on this type of chair?

ANSWER: Everyone knows that spooning is when you lay close to your partner in bed as if to cradle him or her in the “spoon” shape of your body. But in antiques “spoon” refers to the backs of certain chairs that vaguely resemble the shape of the bowl of a spoon. The chair asked about by the couple above wasn’t really a spoon-back chair at all, but one that was made to be used as both a chair and a step stool to reach things up on a shelf. The person standing on it would have held onto the back to steady the chair. Stylized reproductions of many of these types of chairs appeared in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the shape of chairs changed at the end of the 17th century with the appearance of S-shaped legs, the backs for the most part remained straight and box-like.

By the middle of the 18th century, during the reign of Queen Anne of England, chair makers introduced the Cabriole leg which meant that chairs no longer needed stretches for support. This allowed chair makers the freedom to construct gracefully curved backs.

The 19th century brought further design and construction improvements, including the balloon-like shaped back which eventually evolved into what became known as a spoon-back. This became possible because of innovations in chair construction and the ease of cutting the pieces with special mechanical saws. Designers of Rococo and Renaissance Revival chairs used the curved spoon-back design to soften the look of their chairs.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Put a Price on It

Last week, I told you the story of a flea market dealer who hadn’t priced anything and wondered why no one was asking about her items, let alone buying them. So to help you price your antiques and collectibles, especially for a yard sale or flea market, I thought I’d offer some guidance. But before I do, I’d like to offer another example of how not to.

To do that, I continue a few tables down from the previous dealer to another at the same flea market. This guy had a number of U.S. stamps for sale, all packaged in groups by age. Since I collect U.S. stamps, my eye immediately zeroed in on a little “stock” book, with four manila pages with overlapping strips into which he had inserted an assortment of U.S. commemorative stamps. Collectors use these little books to transport stamps to shows or to store a particular group for further study. The dealer had placed two stickers on the cover. One said “$3.50 net with book” while the other said “$4 postage.” At first glance, I noticed the $4 sticker, so I offered him $3, and after some hesitation, he agreed. Then he directed me over to a plastic bin with other packages of stamps. I didn’t see any I wanted, so he directed me to a looseleaf binder with plastic pages filled with stamps. I chose two of them, each with a sticker that said “$2 postage.” He said I could have the stock book filled with stamps and the two pages for $10. I did some quick calculations and came up with $7 for the three items, not $10. “Oh,” he said, “that’s only for the face value of the postage.”

“You said I could have the book with its stamps for $3, so I’ll just take it,” I replied. Needless to say, he wasn’t too pleased. If he had put a definite price on each of his items, there wouldn’t have been a controversy. Instead, his stickers were vague and communicated the wrong message.

So how do you go about pricing your antiques and collectibles so they sell? First, price isn’t the same as value–it’s usually about half that. So while you may use an antiques pricing guide to look up your items, what you’re really looking at is a value guide. The authors of these guides research the value of a particular item by checking the most current amounts the item fetched both at auctions and in shops, then they average the different amounts together.

For you see, the market value of an antique is what someone is willing to pay for it. And just because an items lists for $25, for example, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to charge the same amount for it, especially if you’re selling your item at a market entry-level venue like a yard sale or flea market. To sell successfully at these places, you’ll have to start your pricing much lower than the guide amount.

Some antique sellers take a shortcut and go directly to eBay to check prices. While prices are current there, many have been inflated by what I call the “entertainment” factor. Many eBay shoppers look upon “winning” an auction much as they would winning a game of chance at a casino. At a regular auction, the highest bidder “buys’ the item while on eBay, the highest bidder “wins” the item. Generally, this drives final prices up.

But even beyond using pricing guides and eBay to research prices, you should check the prices in the same sort of selling venues near you. Go to several yard sales and/or flea markets and check what similar items are going for there. This is known as pricing what the market will bear. You can’t charge more than people are willing to pay in a particular area. The item just won’t sell, no matter how valuable it might be.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How Much is This?

[NOTE: Occasionally, I’ll be posting some blogs that are more my opinion of a particular situation involving antiques and collectibles than an answer to a quesiton about one. This is the first.]

“How much is this?” If you have to ask, then the antique shop or flea market dealer hasn’t completed their job–or the person is just downright lazy.

I went to a favorite flea market of mine last Saturday. I say favorite only because it’s the only regular one left in my area–it occurs on the third Saturday of each month from late Spring to late Fall. A lot of the same dealers display some of the same things they’ve had for sale for the last couple of years.

While most of the dealers price their goods beforehand, a few don’t. Take Mr. I-Don’t-Price-Anything, Mr. Idpa for short. This rather smug dealer always seems to offer interesting items, none of which has a price. So I’m always forced to ask, “How much is this?”

There’s a slight pause as Mr. Idpa sizes me up. If he thinks I’m a Yuppie with a Beamer parked out under the trees, he’ll immediately raise his price by as much as 50 percent, even before he says anything. I know this because I’ve conducted a little study over the last few months in which I wear different styles of clothes on different visits to the market. I then pick the same or similar item and ask the same question: “How much is this?” He rarely remembers me and so far, none of the prices quoted for the same item have been the same.

A few times I really wanted an item I collect, but resisted because not only did he make up prices as he went along, he also refused to bargain when I asked “What’s your best price?’ If he were the only dealer doing this, I would just pass by his space. But, unfortunately, he’s not–although he’s the king.

Last week, a new dealer had set up next to Mr. Idpa and like him, she hadn’t priced her goods. As I neared her table, I overheard her say to another woman, “I don’t understand why no one has asked about my chairs.” She had four well-used ladderback rushed chairs arranged out in front of her tables, each nicely draped with colorful silk scraves.

After the woman left, I approached her and said, “Perhaps it’s because you don’t have any prices on your items.”

“Do you think that’s it?” she asked.

I explained that customers need a place to start–a pricing reference point. “When I approach a dealer’s tables and see something I like, I look at the item, then at its price to see if it’s within my budget.
“But I thought prices might scare customers away,” she replied.

“Not at all,” I said. “ You see, people who are serious collectors, like me, come here [to flea markets] looking for items to add to our collections...for the right price, of course. If a dealer overprices an item, I move on. But if it’s within my price range, I begin a conversation with the dealer about it.”

Just then, a woman approached the dealer carrying an old hand washboard she had picked up out near the dealer’s chairs. The washboard had a price on it of $18. From my previous conversation with the dealers, I assumed she left the previous price sticker on from when she bought it. I stepped aside and let them haggle. A few minutes later, the customer walked away with the washboard under her arm and a smile on her face.

I again approached the dealer and said, “That makes my point.”

“I guess so, “ she replied. “Now what can I use for price stickers.”

More on pricing antiques and collectibles next time.

Monday, June 21, 2010


QUESTION: My great aunt gave me a funny little pitcher shaped like a cow. It has no markings on it. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: What this person has is a cow creamer. Originally made in England, then in Scotland and America, these unique creamers were the pride and joy of many late 18th and early 19th-century English housewives. They kept these spotted bovines sitting on top of their dining room dressers, ready to use on special occasions.

These pottery cow creamers are usually about six inches long and four to five inches high. Housewives would pour fresh cream through a hole in the cow’s back, then seal up the whole with a cover. Unfortunately, many a cow creamer today is missing its cover. The cow’s curved tail served as the handle while its mouth served as the spout.

The first cow creamer came from the Whieldon Pottery, which imitated the silver cow jugs made in 1755 by John Schuppe. The most well-known of these had a mottled brown tortoise shell-type glaze. Others had brown and yellow spots, black with a criscrossed yellow pattern, and even light blue with yellow circles.

It seems every potter added his touch of whimsy. In fact, there are almost as many different decorations as there are creamers.

Staffordshire potters also crafted these unique little jugs, essentially copying from the earlier Whieldon design. None of these have markings on the bottom. The Welsh potters added their own creative touches to their cow creamers. Many decorated them freehand or applied transfer designs of rustic farm scenes. After 1850, the Scots developed a love affair with the cow creamer. Scottish potters experimented with sponged decoration and brightly colored glazes.

After the American Revolution and into the early 19th century, imported English pottery became too expensive, so the United States Pottery in Bennington, Vermont, began making its own version of the cow creamer. Each cow had crescent-shaped nostrils, open eyes, folds in the neck, and visible ribs. I guess the American cows weren’t as well fed as their English, Scottish, and Welsh cousins. After Bennington closed in 1858, its potters sought work at potteries in Ohio, Maryland, and New Jersey, taking their skill at making cow creamers with them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Old, New, or Repro

QUESTION: How can you tell how old a piece of furniture is?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, that’s a relatively simple question, but one that seems to baffle many people. Too often they either buy or inherit a piece of furniture and believe it’s an antique when it’s not. This happens all too often when someone inherits a fine table, sideboard, sofa, or whatever and assumes it’s an antique because it belonged to their grandmother and she said it was old when she bought it. In another instance, a piece may have become surrounded by family legend which tells how one of their ancestors brought this thing over on the Mayflower. There was barely room for the passengers on the Mayflower–and their were several–let alone lots of furniture. Sure, there was the odd chair or small table, but not many pieces larger than that.

So how can you tell if you have an antique? A piece’s construction will give you clues to its age. Construction techniques improved as technology improved. Cabinetmakers discovered easier ways to make their furniture. Begin by looking over the piece to see how the maker joined the various parts. Cabinetmakers were also known as joiners. Did the maker use wooden pegs, square nails, or perhaps even screws. If a nail has a square head, it’s possible the piece dates prior to 1820. You probably won’t find many screws in old furniture, but if you do, look to see if the slot is off center, a sure sign the screw was handmade, dating to now later than 1815.

Look on the underside and backs of pieces for circular saw marks, only used after 1850. Before that cabinetmakers cut their wood using a hand saw. During the second half of the 19th century, furniture makers often constructed their pieces of quartersawn wood, giving it a distinctive wavy pattern.

Check the rungs on side chairs. If the chair is old, you’ll see wear marks on the rungs where people rested their feet. Look at the top of the back of the chair. Are there marks caused by being knocked against the wall?

Is the edge of a table worn? Are the bottoms of the legs worn from being dragged? Check to see if the legs are joined using wooden pegs. Also, a long dropleaf on a table usually indicates that it dates from the mid-18th to early 19th century.

Wood shrinks over time. If the piece has severe cracks, especially in paneled doors, then it’s probably at least 100 years old. The tops of round tables made of softer woods like pine eventually become slightly oval. Measure its diameter. If the diameter of the table varies, this shows that the tabletop has shrunk, a sure sign of age. Also, look for rings on the top which might indicate moisture damage. While this in itself isn’t a sign of age, deeper discoloration due to spills may be.

Another sign of the time are the dovetails used to join the front to the sides of drawers. Those from 18th-century chests were usually uneven since the cabinetmaker had to cut them by hand. As technology progressed, he had power tools to help with this, so by the first quarter of the 19th century, makers produced several smaller dovetails. Ones from the 20th century are exactly the same size in a sort of keystone shape.

Finally, look for wear caused by fingernails around knobs and handles, even if the hardware appears newer.

It’s especially important to check for age on Colonial Revival-type reproductions. A piece of furniture may have Chippendale style details, such as ball-and-claw feet, but may be no older than the 1950s. And if you see a paper label on the bottom of a chair or the back of a chest, you know right away that it’s no older than the first or second decade of the 20th century.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Those Romantic Winter Scenes

I have two George Durrie prints I'm trying to find out about. I know that One is called “Home to Thanksgiving” and the other one is “The Road-Winter.” What can you tell me about George Durrie and his prints?

ANSWER: George Henry Durrie’s work has often been confused with that of Currier and Ives. He dealt with the same subjects, mostly rural winter themes, and his style is very similar. This is no accident, for while Durrie painted on his own, Currier & Ives marketed his work after their firm became the premier seller of hand-colored lithographs.

Born in Hartford in 1820, Connecticut, Durrie began studying with portraitist Nathaniel Jocelyn in New Haven in 1839. After mastering his painting skills, Durrie traveled throughout his home state of Connecticut and then through New Jersey doing paintings on commission. Although he gained a reputation for his rural landscapes, he also painted still lifes and scenes from Shakespeare to be used as illustrations.

Durrie became especially known for his snow scenes which earned him the nickname “the Snowman.” The paintings this person inquired about above are two of his more famous ones. Like Natanial Currier, Durrie was a meticulous artists, including fine details in his scenes, providing an record of 19th-century rural life. He paid special attention to the foliage and animals in his paintings, making them all the more realistic. But his method was more stylistic than realistic, catering to nostalgic images of farm life that people liked, rather than brutally realistic ones. Pioneers who had traveled West from New England especially liked them.

Though he began painting New England summer farm scenes, he soon discovered that if he added snow to them they became more appealing to the public. Durrie has been credited with adding the “snowscene” into American painting, creating a wintry ambiance that can be found on many Christmas cards today.

Durrie’s reputation preceded him and soon Currier and Ives knew that they had discovered a winner. They had gained success marketing hand-colored lithographs, and his landscapes matched their style of quiet country motifs. Even after his death in 1863, Currier & Ives continued to use his paintings for lithographs, eventually producing 10 lithographs of his work. Among his most popular prints were Cider Making, Winter in the Country, Getting Ice and Winter Morning.

He painted "Home to Thanksgiving" in 1861, only two years before his death. Currier and Ives published the large-folio print from it in 1867. The print originally sold for $1.50. Today, an original of this print sells for many times that. The emphasis here is on an “original” 18x27-inch lithograph in good condition with uncut margins, not a reprint of it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting into the Antiques Biz

I love antiques and have been collecting them for 20 years or so and have so many things that my house is bursting at the seams. I’m ready to retire and have been thinking about opening my own antiques shop. Is this a good idea in this economy?

ANSWER: Lots of people dream about going into business for themselves. For some, it seems like a way out of the corporate rat race. For others, something to do in retirement. And while an antique shop may seem like an uncomplicated, quiet business to get into, it’s far from it. Remember, first and foremost, selling antiques is a business–and the emphasis here is on selling.

Many people think because they’ve been buying up a storm at yard sales and flea markets that they can turn around and sell what they’ve bought. Sure, you can put some items up on eBay to sell, but to be successful at selling on eBay, you first have to know what people are buying. Salesmanship is a skill that needs to be learned. And loving antiques has nothing to do with it. In fact, the worst reason to open an antique shop is that you love antiques and have been collecting them for years.

To have a successful antiques business, whether selling in a shop, at shows, flea markets, or online, you need to know what people want to buy and then buy those items. What usually happens is that the items people want to buy aren’t the ones you personally like to buy, so you avoid them. For instance, today, the trend is towards collecting items from the 1930s and 1940s. But you love Victorian antiques and can’t stand Art Deco.

Also, this is a business. That means keeping records, learning how to display things so they sell, and developing a network of sources to buy new inventory. The IRS doesn’t look kindly on people who just play around.

NOTE: I’m still having problems posting images to this blog. And an antiques blog is nothing without photos of the items I’m discussing. So I’m looking for a new host for my blog and may be moving it in the near future. Please stay tuned and thanks for your patience.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Thrill of the Hunt

QUESTION: I’ve been buying most of my antiques at flea markets and in shops. I’d like to go to antique shows, but I’m afraid the prices will be too high. Can you give me some advice?

ANSWER: Though there are all sorts of antique shows out there, I divide them generally into three levels–the friendly firehouse or school show, the more elegant hotel show, and the high-end show.

You’ll find the first of these, the friendly firehouse or school show, held in a local fire company hall or the all-purpose room of an elementary school once or twice a year. Here, you’ll find lots of affordable antiques and collectibles. Prices range from as low as a few dollars up to perhaps three figures. Dealers, mostly from the surrounding region, tend to sell only at shows or out of their homes.

The more elegant hotel show comes around usually once a year and features finer items. Tables often display a myriad of small objects–Japanese Imari porcelains, Wedgewood, fine English majolica, and Staffordshire ware, along with small pieces of furniture, trunks, stained glass lamps, and so on. Dealers tend to come from a wider area, including surrounding states while prices range from two to four digits, with finer items selling for several thousand dollars.

High-end shows are extravagant affairs, both in goods and prices, and feature dealers from all over the country. For some patrons of these shows, nothing says they’ve made it better than bragging about how much they’ve spent on an antique, whether it be a piece of fine 18th-century furniture or a diamond necklace that once belonged to a princess. Just before the recession, patrons at these shows thought nothing of whipping out their checkbooks and writing checks for $30,000 to $40,000 for an Empire sofa or as much as a quarter million for an 18th-century Philadelphia secretary in the Chippendale style.

Many of these shows are vetted, which means the promoters guarantee everything sold there as authentic. Where’s the fun in that? Part of the thrill of the hunt is being able to tell for yourself if a piece is real or not by the knowledge you’ve amassed about it beforehand, especially when the dealer doesn’t have a clue.

And while you can attend high-end shows by paying the heft admission price–going to a good cause, of course–you’ll find the reception from other showgoers rather off-putting. Let’s face it. They have no idea from your worn jeans and casual top that you just inherited a cool million from daddy. The dealers, on the other hand, couldn’t be nicer. After all, they’ll gladly take money from anyone.

Give me the dealers at my neighborhood flea market and firehouse antique show any day. While things may not cost as much at these venues, the dealers love to bargain. And, for me, that’s part of the thrill of the hunt.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Problems, Problems, Problems

I've tried to post to this blog every week, but several weeks ago, I began to have problems posting to it. As with all free services, you're left at the mercy of companies, like Google, that make it impossible to contact them for help. After much searching, I did find a link that said "write us." Clicking on that link, I was hopeful of getting some help and thus getting back on my posting schedule. Instead of taking me to an E-mail window, the link took me to a forum where hundreds of bloggers post complaints. Only a fraction of these cries for help got answers--and then only from other bloggers.

It seems that companies like Google and Yahoo, who both offer free chat and other services, make it extremely hard to get help when a problem occurs. Some people's blogs disappeared, others did crazy things. In all, it's frustrating enough to work with all the new technology.

In the end, after much thought, I tried several things and solved my problem. I still can't figure out what caused it.

My regular posts will begin again on Monday. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words–and Sometimes Much More

QUESTION: My grandfather collected all types of circus posters, programs, tickets and much more. When he died in 1969, they were all given to my Father, and now I have them. Most of the items are from the 30's, 40's and 50's.  Can you give me some insight as to where I can find out their value?

ANSWER: Circus ephemera, those tickets, programs, and posters that this person mentions above, seem to be surfacing everywhere. Perhaps, it’s because people who held on to them stuffed them in drawers and closets. When they die, their family finds them and not knowing much about them, have no idea whether they’re worth anything.

Circus posters, in particular, can be worth more than just something. But like with most collectibles, condition is of prime importance.

Weeks ahead of its show date, a circus would send advance men into town to plaster posters, called “bills,” all over town. These bright-colored graphics enticed men, women, and especially children within a 50-mile radius of town to come to the show. No color was too bright, no word too big for the circus–greatest, bravest, most stupendous, world famous, exotic. These posters  promised showgoers beasts from the Far East and Africa, dare-devil aerialists, and luscious lady equestrians in glittering tights riding

Circus posters were crucial for drawing crowds to what were only one or two performances per location. Many early ads were simple woodblock prints mentioning the name of the circus, the price of admission, and a few acts.

Along with circus posters, the circus created such common concepts as marketing campaigns and the tools that go with them–junk mail and free coupons–plus the idea of “newer, bigger, and better.” Advance men saturated the show location with 15,000 to 20,000 poster sheets, or the equivalent of 626- 833 standard billboards.

Because the poster was the most important element of a circus’ promotion, they constituted one of the principle products of the commercial printers in the 19th century. Printing houses created these posters using the team approach with many artists working on any one design. One artist might specialize in lettering while another specialized in portraits of performers, and another in animals.

Circus posters fall into two categories–stock posters and specialty posters. Stock posters were generic designs that each show printer produced, but that could be used by any circus. These posters featured images of clowns, wild animals, and performers. It wasn’t uncommon for more than one circus to use the same poster designs in the same season, the only difference being the show title on the posters. Show printers produced thousands of these and sold them to any circus promoter that needed them. They designed specialty posters, on the other hand, with life-like portraits of featured performers or depictions of specific acts for particular circuses.

The value of circus posters depends on their condition. Since they’re made of paper, time and humidity can cause them to deteriorate over time. Creases, caused by folding for storage, can actually add to their value. Unfortunately, since so many artists worked on a particular poster, most aren’t signed. The best way to get a ballpark estimate of what a poster is worth is to check what a poster has sold for either through a dealer or at auction–then take half.

For more information on circus posters, read Step Right Up!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Locating Antique Furniture Parts

QUESTION: I have a Chippendale/Mahogany bookcase/secretary that is missing a finial. Do you have any idea where I can locate one?

ANSWER: Finding parts for pieces of antique furniture can be a quest in itself. But before you decide to restore a piece, you first have to know how old it is. A piece of furniture dating before 1830 is considered a fine antique. As such, it has special rules for restoration. First, you cannot replace more than 60 percent of it without it being declassified as an antique. Replacing anything on it will definitely lower the value. In fact, doing any sort of restoration usually hurts the value, unless it’s to restore the integrity of the piece.

Restoring furniture made after 1830 is another matter. As time goes on, even pieces dating from the mid-19th century will be scrutinized closer when it comes to restoration. However, generally the fine antique crowd tends to avoid anything Victorian, looking upon it as used furniture. Replacing parts and restoring a piece of Victorian furniture can actually enhance its value. But the replacement has to be of the finest quality and the restoration done right.

The person who asked the question above didn’t signify when her bookcase/secretary was made. If it were an authentic 18th-century Chippendale piece, replacing that finial would have to be done by a professional cabinetmaker and restorer. This could cost several thousand dollars, but when the piece may be worth half a million in the first place, that’s a drop in the antique bucket. The cabinetmaker or joiner would have to hand-carve the missing finial to create an exact match to the original.

If–and that’s a BIG if–a replacement could be found from an identical bookcase/secretary, that would also work. But since 18th-century cabinetmakers all customized details like finials on their pieces, the chance of finding one is a million to one. The only way to make sure is to find a bookcase/secretary from the same cabinetmaker that’s beyond restoration and use it for parts.

On the other hand, if the piece were from a later period, and I’m guessing it is, it may be possible to find a finial floating around in a antique or junk shop. But you can’t just go to a home center and pick one off the shelf.

The first place to start looking is in antique shops that specialize in selling furniture. This could take years of browsing. But parts have been known to service in the least possible places.

You can also turn to a cabinetmaker who specializes in making replacement parts for furniture. This, again, could cost a bit since each part has to be handcrafted and that takes time.

Finally, there area a number of places on the Internet to find replacement parts. A lot of them sell mostly replacement hardware, but some, like Don’s Furniture Clinic and Antique Furniture Repair and Refinishing, do make parts to order. McLean’s Refinishing, of Bogart, Georgia,
stocks old furniture parts and has access to reproduction and replacement parts.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What’s All the Confusion About American Parian?

QUESTION: Can you tell me if the cream pitcher and sugar bowl I have are authentic pieces of Parian ware? Someone told me they might be American.

ANSWER: Parian ware is a type of salt-glazed pottery made in England beginning in the 1840s. The English pottery that originally developed it, W.T. Copeland, named it after Greek Parian marble since they intended to duplicate expensive marble sculptures for the growing merchant class who wanted to emulate decorative pieces owned by the wealthy. While it has the same ingredients as porcelain–white clay and feldspar–the proportions are two of clay to one of feldspar, instead of equal ones as in porcelain.

Victorians who were climbing up the social and economic ladder loved the statues of classical figures and such, made to resemble those of ancient Greece and Rome. After Copeland, the most famous maker of Parian, perfected the process, other English potters, including Boote, Minton, and even Wedgewood began producing it.

British potters, who immigrated to America in the 19th century, brought with them the skills to make Parian and established potteries from Vermont to South Carolina where they made Parian ware using English techniques. Just as their British counterparts, American women loved it because it resembled expensive marble at a fraction of the price. Most pieces are a dull, gray-white and unglazed.

Parian really took off in the United States after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia where several American potteries set up exhibits of their works. Potteries such as Ott & Brewer of Trenton, New Jersey and Union Porcelain Works of Brooklyn, New York created Parian statuary with truly American themes. Since the Civil War had ended a little over 10 years before, many of them celebrated the heros of it. The game of baseball had also gained national popularity, so Ott & Brewer produced a statue called “The Baseball Pitcher,” sculpted by Isaac Isaac Broome for their exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition.

What gets many collectors confused is that the Bennington Pottery, founded by Christopher W. Fenton, operated under the name Fenton’s Works from 1847 to 1849, and then as the United States Pottery Company from 1849 until 1858. It produced not only Parian statuary but also 16 different styles of pitchers to hold everything from water to ice tea and milk.

While the potters back in England marked their pieces, many in America did not. The United States Pottery in Bennington, Vermont, one of the most noted American Parian makers, marked only about 20 percent of their pieces and then mostly pitchers with either “Fenton's Works,” “U.S.P.,” or “UNITED STATES/ POTTERY CO."

So the creamer and pitcher above would most likely have come from one of the American Parian makers rather than one in England.

For more information on Parian ware, read Parian Ware–Affordable Art for the Masses.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Time in Your Pocket

I recently inherited a pocket watch from my grandfather.  It has an ornate gold case and seems to keep fairly good time. Is it worth keeping, perhaps as the start of a collection.

ANSWER:  There was a time back in the Good Ole Days when grandpa kept his watch in his pocket. The wristwatch, as we know it today, didn’t come into common use until after World War I. Nearly every working man up to that time kept his watch in his pocket.

First known as portable clocks, pocket watches were large and cumbersome. The typical 17th-century timepiece was four inches wide and nearly three inches thick. Since they were a bit too big and because people didn’t have pockets, most owners wore them around their necks on chains.

By the 18th century, men’s waistcoats and vests had pockets. In the meantime Peter Henlein and other watchmakers had discovered spring technology and soon began to miniaturize personal timepieces. Because the watches didn’t have any cover to protect the crystal, watchmakers fashioned small slip cases from silver or gold to protect their watches.

Today, pocket watches are one of the most collectible items. Not only do they look great, but they take up little room and hold their value, making them a great long-term investment. While pocket watches made before 1865 are available, their cost can be prohibitive to the beginning collector. Those made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries come in a wide variety of styles and prices. Some collectors specialize in collecting only railroad pocket watches. From the beginning of railroading in the United States, keeping accurate time has been a requirement for efficient operation.

A number of reference guides provide a way to look up a pocket watch manufacturer’s serial number.  Some collectors have even turned to the Internet to find information on their watches. To find the serial number on a pocket watch, very carefully remove the back of the watch and look for the number on the movement inside.

For more information on pocket watches go to Bowers Watch & Clock Repair and The Antique Pocket Watch

Monday, February 15, 2010

What to Do With Old Cameras

QUESTION: I just purchased a good digital camera, and I love it. Besides my 35mm camera, I have several other older cameras. What can I do with them? Are they collectable?

ANSWER: Now that digital photography has become firmly a part of people’s lives, what should everyone do with their old cameras? Even though photography has been around for well over a century, it’s taken a long time for photographic gear–cameras in particular–to become part of the collectible scene.

Last summer, as I was browsing a local church flea market, I saw an entire table full of cameras of every type and description. Most were 35mm castoffs, but a few were older. With the ease of taking photos with a digital camera, let alone not having to buy film, it’s no wonder the dealer had so many cameras and lenses on hand. But are these recent castoffs worth anything in the collectible market? That’s the big question.

Unfortunately, in the world of photographic memorabilia, recent 35mm cameras aren’t worth much unless they’re classic cameras or rare or unique models. Sure, in perhaps 20 years or so, their value will climb, but for right now their only value remains as used cameras.

So what types of cameras can you collect without breaking the bank? There are lots of modern cameras that have long ago outlasted their usefulness that can create an interesting camera collection. You can pick up a decent 100-year-old Kodak box camera for about $25 to $35 at flea markets. Folding cameras go for a bit more. There are also lots of other cameras, like Kodak’s Brownie that you can buy to start a modest collection.

The biggest problem with collecting cameras, however, is where to put them. Ideally, you should display them in a glass-doored cabinet to keep them from getting dusty. If you can’t display them, buy one of those large plastic storage bins at your local discount store and wrap each camera in bubble wrap. Be sure to put some drying agent in the bin to keep moisture from building up.

For more information on collecting cameras, read Collectors Snap Up Old Cameras.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Often Confusing World of Antiques

QUESTION: Every time I go into an antique mall or visit a show, I become overwhelmed by all the items.  How can I make sense of it all?

ANSWER: If you’re like this person, perhaps you’re mind and senses have gone into antiques overload. So many items–furniture, ceramics, pictures, jewelry, old Coca-Cola signs and things that look like the cat dragged them in. So where’s the good stuff?

It all seems so confusing. And the prices for some products seem ridiculous , especially if you’re a beginning collector. But don’t despair. There’s a method to all that antique madness. Believe it or not, there are some main categories.
When most people think of antiques, they think of furniture. And though it makes up a good percentage of antiques out there, smaller items, known as “smalls” in the antiques business--ceramics, glassware, silverware, toys, and commemorative items–all play important roles.
All in all, there are about 15 major categories and 75 sub-categories. Within these there are other, more specialized areas, such as antique maps and posters, two very specialized categories.

Even though antiques can be categorized generally, dealers and serious collectors use historical periods–Victorian, Roman, Gothic, Civil War, Western and even the1950s–to sort things out.
Often, these terms also indicate different styles.

For instance, in the world of furniture, you’ll probably see examples of English, French, American, and Chinese styles at most antique malls, shows, or auctions. Most English furniture falls into the pre-Victorian or Victorian category while American furniture tends to fall into different types: Pennsylvania, Shaker, New York, etc..

Porcelain or pottery pieces fall into categories associated with the country in which they were made–England, Germany, France, American, Chinese and Japanese are just a few. The four you’ll see most are English, German and Japanese, and American. You’ll soon become familiar with names such as Royal Doulton, Staffordshire, and Meissen, Blue Willow, Limoge, Belleek and Sevres, especially if you frequent the better antiques venues.

Glassware is the third most popular category. You’ll see all types, including Depression, Venetian, English, and Czech glass. Most glassware collectors specialize in a particular produce line–bowls, tumblers, decanters, etc. There’s also a refined category known as art glass in which you’ll find all those pretty vases blown in amberina, peach blow, and ruby.

These are just some of the many categories of antiques that you can begin to collect. While some tend to be higher priced, you’ll find plenty of small pieces of furniture, ceramic, and glassware to get you on your way.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reviving the Essence of Colonial Furniture

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this desk. My grandmother told me it was a Chippendale, but I can't find any desk that lookS like it for a reference. There are no desks that have the scallop pattern on the pull down. or brass hardware railing on the top.

ANSWER: What this person has is a fine example of what's called Colonial Revival furniture. Her grandmother wasn't too far off. Her desk was made in the style of Chippendale, but it's not a Chippendale. That's why she couldn't find it anywhere.

But let's look at what it is. Colonial Revival was a style period that lasted from about 1880 to 1910. Everyone who went to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 got excited by the exhibits on Colonial America and wanted to have interiors that reflected that period. Unfortunately, not many of the designers did much research into what Colonial furniture–18th century furniture looked like. So what resulted was a hodge-podge of decoration that resembled a little of one 18th-century designer and a little of that one.

Chippendale was a biggie. They loved his style. Sheraton and Hepplewhite were also popular. Think of the development houses of today. Each has a hodge-podge of decorative elements, but no house exactly reproduces a particular style of architecture. You see Colonial, French Provincial, Tudor, etc. elements in each house–and it seems every house has a palladium window.

After the Colonial Revival Period came to an end, furniture manufacturers continued to employ these pseudo-Colonial styles in what came to be commonly known as “Period” furniture. This was all the rage in upper middle class households in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, “Period” furniture had trickled down to the middle class, who wanted their interiors to look as elegant as those of the rich folks but at a much lower price. Manufacturers used mostly dark mahogany finishes or veneers to give their pieces an elegant Colonial look much like the pieces at venerated historic houses like Mount Vernon. The giveaway on this desk are the drawer pulls and the feet. Both are too highly decorative to have been on a true Colonial piece.

If you have a piece of furniture like this that dates to the beginning of the 20th century, you have a fine piece which has value in its own right, but not the value of an 18th-century antique. However, if you have a “Period” piece from the 1930s-1940s onward, it’s only value lies in its being a piece of used furniture.

To learn more about authentic Chippendale furniture, go to Chippendale--The Royalty of Antique Furniture.
To learn more about the revival styles of the Victorian Era, go to THE VICTORIAN ERA--An Age of Revivals.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Let's Go to the Fair

QUESTION: My uncle's dad founded Greyhound Bus, and he had this keepsake from the 1939 World's Fair.He claimed they made a ton of metal buses to give away, but never really put this tram into production. Have you seen one like this?

ANSWER: I get almost as many questions about souvenir items from the 1939 New York World’s Fair as there were items sold or given away at the Fair. Well, not really, but pretty many.

The item this person mentions–a small cast-iron Greyhound Bus tram–was one of over 25,000 different mementos made for the Fair. Fifty stands sold souvenirs–everything from postcards to guidebooks to view folders and books, as well as a myriad of novelties that gave "knick-knacks" a whole new meaning. Vendors also sold a myriad of pins. Orange and blue World’s Fair emblems graced the surfaces of every one of them.

The Fair opened on April 30 , 1939–the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City. At 10:00 A.M. Mayor LaGuardia cut the ribbon at a dedication ceremony in the Temple of Religion. Trumpets heralded the procession of thousands of police officers and military men and public officials. And at 2:00 P.M. President Roosevelt dedicated the fair. Altogether, 60 nations and international organizations took part. Thirty-three states of the United States also had exhibits–and every one of them had giveaways and more deluxe souvenirs for sale.

Why is it then that the New York World’s Fair’s souvenirs seem to stand out from the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that same year and the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago six years earlier? For one thing, the shear numbers of items–millions of them–flooded the U.S. and the world with mementos of the Fair. Every visitor, no matter their economic status, brought home something, from small toys like the Greyhound tram to three-legged folding cane/seats so visitors could take a rest while walking the Fair. There were also wallets, bracelets, woman’s compacts, snow globes, and thousands of pins. And for stamp collectors, the Fair offered first day covers, postmarked daily at special U.S. postal stations at the Fair.

Another reason the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered so much variety was that unlike previous world’s fairs of the 20th Century, it was truly a commercial phenomenon. There, housewives first got their first look at automatic washers, cooking mixes, and small appliances of all kinds. So the corporations who sponsored the Fair went all out to promote their new products–products of science and imagination.

So to answer the question above–have I seen such an item–probably not, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and can be worth some good money in the very specialized World’s Fairs’ collectible market.

For more information about 1939 New York World’s Fair memorabilia, click here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Case of Mistaken Identity

QUESTION: I saw a Queen Anne dining set in a shop, and it appears to be old, however the chairs are upholstered in a ‘vinyl’ material which also appears old, but is this an antique?

ANSWER: I get questions like this a lot. Most of the time, the persons asking them think that because a piece of furniture is in a particular style that it’s an antique. But they fail to realize that certain popular styles of furniture have been reproduced over and over throughout the last several centuries.

From the photo, I could tell that the dining table and chairs had been made in the Queen Anne style, but I could also tell right away that it wasn’t an antique. The giveaway was the extra leaves in the table. From the looks of it, I'd say the set might be as old as the 1930s, but I'm leaning more to the 1960s. Let’s see why.

At the time Queen Anne was popular in the 18th century, dining tables like this one with added leaves didn't come into use until the 19th century. During the 1750s, joyners–the person’s who made furniture–made Queen Anne dining tables as drop-leaf tables with large leaves or wings that could be folded up and stood against a wall until ready for use. In many cases, the owners stood them in their front hallways to allow for more space. A wealthy 18th-century family would have only used a larger table like this when dining with guests. They often ate at a smaller table by the fire, especially in winter, or had “tea”–what we call supper–in their bedrooms by the fire. When not in use as a dining table, they may have used it for other things and stood the chairs against the wall around the room.

At the end of the 19th century, a style called Colonial Revival came into popularity because of the colonial exhibits at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Furniture makers began to make what they thought looked like colonial furniture although it was often stylized and lacked the fine details of the original.

That said, this table and chairs did seem to be well constructed of solid woods and, therefore might sell for somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000. But don’t mistake the identity of this dining set for the real thing. It isn’t.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Curator or Caretaker–Which are You?

QUESTION: I own a necklace of pure scrimshaw about 40 years old that was passed to my mother, and she gave it to me when she died. Can you tell me its value? 

ANSWER: Here’s a good example of an object that has been passed down from mother to daughter over several generations. But the person makes no mention of obtaining any more pieces of scrimshaw. Unfortunately, this often happens when people inherit an object or a collection from their relatives.

It seems that this person has taken over the job of acting caretaker for this piece of scrimshaw. While there’s nothing wrong in that, she’s missing out on the joy of collecting–the search for other pieces and buying the ones that she likes. But she shouldn’t feel bad. This is more often the case than not.

A caretaker, as the name suggests, cares for an object or a collection. This care usually consists of maintaining the condition of the object, and, of course, finding out how much the object is worth.

A curator, on the other hand, is someone who catalogs and maintains historic or artistic collections. This usually entails the maintenance of the objects and their general protection from damage. The curator also finds out as much as possible about the objects in the collection and, using a number of reliable resources, determines their value. In addition, the curator adds to the collection, refining it by selling off inferior pieces and arranging for the purchase of better ones. In essence, the curator becomes a collector.

So which are you–curator or caretaker? If you’ve been acting as a caretaker, why not change roles and actively get involved in learning all you can about and growing your inherited collection. You don’t know how much fun you’re missing.