Tuesday, October 29, 2013

19th Century Tupperware

QUESTION: I recently won a box lot at a local auction. Inside the box I found what looks like a cup with an attached saucer. It’s heavy and a bit crude. Can you tell me what it is?

ANSWER: What you have is a 19th-century grease lamp made of stoneware. Farmers used these lamps, fueled by animal fat, in their homes. They often threw away early, less refined versions, as better ones appeared on the market. 

Stoneware is one of the hardy perennials of the American antiques trade. Each year, auction houses, antiques shops, and flea markets sell thousands of pieces at prices from $25 to several thousand dollars. The record price stands at $15,000 for a rare 1773 stoneware inkstand. Only a handful of pieces fetch prices in that stratospheric range.

Stoneware is a heavy, hard pottery that resists odors and tastes and won’t absorb water. The first American stoneware appeared in the last half of the 18th century, and for more than 100 years people used stoneware vessels to store and transport foods and liquids. It was essentially the 19th-century version of Tupperware. When glass and metal containers came into common use, people stopped using it.

Generally, it’s difficult to date stoneware unless a piece has the name and town of the maker or the name of the company that used the vessel to hold its product stamped on the bottom. For this reason, many collectors like to buy pieces made in their areas. But stoneware that can be identified as the work of an early potter may be worth several hundred dollars. For example, a double-handled crock inscribed "Commeraw" sold for $800 because it was made by Thomas Commeraw, a New York City potter active from 1795 to 1820. At a Massachusetts auction, a jug with the initials J. F. sold for $600—it’s attributed to a 1790's Boston potter named Jonathan Fenton. Sometimes the initials on a piece belong not to the maker but to the original owner, which makes the piece attractive to collectors interested in genealogy.

As with many other antiques, age isn’t the main reason in determining the price of an object—its decorative qualities are far more important. An attractive late-19th-century jug will fetch more at auction than a homely Revolutionary-era piece. Most stoneware forms, such as jugs, crocks, jars, churns, and pitchers, are very simple and vary only slightly in shape and design. Decoration, if any, tends to be sparse. When a potter decorated his pieces, he often used simple floral, bird, or scroll motifs painted on the stoneware in three basic colors—blue, brown, or black. The most common stoneware style has a gray-glazed background with blue decoration. Such run-of-the-mill pieces, which represent about 90 percent of the stoneware available today, are generally worth less than $50.

Because many stoneware items look alike, the most valuable pieces are those with unusual or imaginative decoration. A rare form, such as your stoneware grease lamp, or an odd-sized piece, an exceptionally large crock, for example, can be worth several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More on Organizing Your Collections

You’ve figured out a numbering system and assigned numbers to the items in your collection. The next step is to apply them to your objects. Whichever technique you used depends on the surface of the object. The labels must be removable in case you sell an item from the collection, but they must also be durable and long-lasting. Choose a place for the label on the bottom or back of objects, being careful not to obliterate any trademarks, serial numbers, patent dates, or maker's signatures. Use a thin pointed Sharpie marker to print the numbers on the labels. Removable labels work the best.

Paper items can be labeled with a soft pencil, never with ink or a rubber stamp. Apply the label in an inconspicuous place, preferably on the back, always keeping in mind that it may have to be removed. Place the label on a sturdy portion of the paper, not so close to the edge that the paper will tear if the number is erased.

For such textiles as rugs, quilts, samplers, wall hangings, and clothing, use small fabric labels numbered with a laundry pen or fine ballpoint pen. Always test the pen first on a piece of scrap label to make sure that the ink does not bleed or smear. Attach the label to the fabric with only one or two stitches at each corner so that the label can easily be removed without damaging the fabric. Although self-adhesive labels or iron-on tape may seem quick and easy, they are not recommended because they fall off in time. They sometimes permanently discolor the object or leave a residue that can damage it.

If you recorded your collection on cards or in a looseleaf notebook, you can break it down into individual classifications for filing purposes. You may wish to even break down those classifications further.  Some specialties may not require such complete listings, and some individual headings may need to be expanded. For example, if the specialty is Eastlake-inspired furniture, subheadings can be added in the furniture category to identify makers or types of furniture. In the case of bottles, for example, specify the type of glass, blown or molded, the color and shape, and the type of bottle—whiskey bottle, flask, bitters bottle, or house-hold bottle. The contents of your collection and your planned future acquisitions will determine the headings you choose.

Using a digital camera or camera-equipped smartphone, you may wish to add photos of the items in your collection to your listings or database. Photograph the items individually. If you’re working with small objects, consider buying or making a lightbox—a box with white paper on three sides and bottom—in which you can photograph them. Save the originals as is, but make copies of all the photos first and rename them using the catalog number you’ve assigned to that object.

Most growing collections represent substantial investments of time and effort as well as money. Besides its obvious uses for insurance claims, a carefully kept catalog is valuable to those who may buy or inherit your collection. Cataloging is also a way of becoming intimately acquainted with all the objects in your collection, identifying the collection's strengths and weaknesses, and  taking the time to enjoy it thoroughly.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Organizing Your Collections

QUESTIONS: I love collecting things and have been doing it a long time. But I now find I really don’t know exactly what I have. Can you give me some advice on how to organize my collections?

ANSWERS: Collecting things can be addictive. And over time your collections may become so large that you lose sight of what you actually have. Organizing your collections is important if you’re to truly enjoy them.

Private collections often start with one or two items—perhaps a striking old photograph or an old vase. You treasure a few objects and know their every feature by heart. As the objects multiply, however, you’ll  forget where you found an object or what its history was. Cataloging of your collection can record those details, document the artifacts for insurance, and form a framework to keep similar objects together.

Collectors have a common need to know what they have and where they got it.

There are three ways to catalog your collections. All of them are rather simple. The first uses
standard 3 x 5 or 5 x 8-inch cards and a notebook, or logbook. Another uses a three-ring binder with dividers if you prefer to keep all the information under one cover. In either case, no special materials are needed; cards, notebooks, and binders are available at any office-supply or stationery store.

The third way is to create a computer database. You can begin by using the cards you prepared above, then transferring the information to a database later.

The first step in any classification system is a catalog number, which will appear on the artifact, in the logbook, and on every receipt, canceled check, photograph, or card that relates to it. The number is the essential link between your records and the item.

The objects in your collection should be numbered in sequence in the order in which you acquired them. Although simple numbers will serve, a three-part number is more useful because it includes the year the object was acquired and the source. Individual items purchased at the same time from the same source will thus each have this number.

It’s a good idea to record the numbers consecutively in the logbook as soon as you assign them. Include in the entry basic information about the source, a brief description of the object, and the price paid for it. That information, along with the receipt or canceled check, can be used to document a claim if a part or all of the collection should be damaged or destroyed. The log should be stored in a safe place and updated regularly.

Next Week: More on organizing your collections.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Collecting Boxes

QUESTION: I love old boxes and want to start a box collection. But where do I begin? What sort of boxes are highly collectible?

ANSWER: Collecting old boxes is a great introduction into collecting antiques. Boxes are small enough so as not to take up too much room, yet intriguing enough to keep you interested as your collection grows.

Boxes are popular with collectors. The shape of a box reveals clues as to what it once held while the quality and type of workmanship are a key to the type of individual that owned and used it. And when you life the lid of an antique box, you’ll smell exotic aromas of times gone by—the scent of peppery clove, the fruity wood smell of tobacco, the delicate odor of beeswax or bayberry.

With the passing of time, the styles and functions of boxes have changed . Early settlers used rustic wooden and tin boxes to hold necessities like salt, flour, and candles. Colonials in Ben Franklin's day toted their snuff in convenient pocket-size boxes, the elaborateness of which indicated a gentleman's social standing. Elegant Victorian ladies who indulged in the luxury of lace gloves and cloth beauty patches kept them in ornate silk- and velvet-covered boxes. Today,  boxes like these bring a bit of history to any room and can be used to hold keepsakes or simply enjoyed for their own unique charms. So you want to start a box collection? What’s involved?

Before you buy any antique box, research it carefully. If you're looking for boxes made in the late 19th century, for example, read books on the subject, view historical displays of that period in museums, and browse antique shops and shows.  Once you decide on the type of boxes you want to collect, go to auctions, estate sales, and quality flea markets to see what's available.

Once you begin finding boxes to add to your collection , select on the best ones and avoid those that show more than normal wear. Bypass wooden boxes with warped veneers, cracks, and damaged hinges. Check porcelain, pottery, and glass boxes for chips and cracks, and avoid metal boxes that have bad dents. Always buy the best your budget will allow. Quality boxes do appreciate in value with time. Plan to keep any box you purchase at least 10 years to realize this appreciation.

Box collectors particularly favor those handmade by American craftsmen in the 19th century. Many of these are rustic and were designed to hold everyday possessions, such as salt and seasonings or grooming aids. The contents of a box usually determined its shape. A box made for a three-cornered hat, for instance, was triangular, while a candle box was long and narrow. Craftsmen decorated some boxes with carving or delicate hand-painted designs while they left others plain.

Brightly colored boxes made by Pennsylvania Germans, and boxes with finger-style joinings made by Shakers are excellent examples of folk art, and command high prices today. Fortunately, most antique shops and shows have many other types of primitive boxes at reasonable prices.

Boxes made during the early 20th century are also gaining popularity with collectors. Victorian women used some of the most common ones, made of cardboard covered with silk, velvet, paper, or shells, to store gloves, handkerchiefs, sewing items, and trinkets. You’ll find these boxes for $15-20 and up. Other early 20th-century examples include assorted sizes of Japanese lacquered  boxes, selling for $20 or more, small brass Oriental ones with metal appliques, and porcelain "fairing boxes," originally sold at English country fairs. You’ll usually find these “fairings” in antiques shops or at shows, starting at around $125.

Collecting boxes can be addictive because there are so many different kinds out there. The more focused your collection is, the better.