Tuesday, December 17, 2013

All That Glitters Isn't Always Tiffany

QUESTION: I recently bought what I thought was a Tiffany lamp. I paid several hundred dollars for it and thought it was a steal. Now I'm not so sure. I cannot find a signature on it anywhere. Can you tell me if you think it's a Tiffany?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, "You got robbed." Well, not exactly. No, your lamp isn't a Tiffany. It's not even close. But what you paid for it probably is what it's worth. And as long as you like it, that's what counts.
The sight of what looks like a Tiffany lamp sends some people into a dream-like state. Others begin to see dollar signs at the mere mention of the name. Tiffany lamps have become the Holy Grail of antique collecting for many people. To find one—to own one—is paramount to winning the MegaMillions jackpot. And there lies the rub.

Because lamps made by Tiffany Studios command such a high price, people tend to lump all stained glass lamps into this one category. They think that any stained glass lamp is a Tiffany and that they’ll be set for life. In a million-to-one shot, they just might be, but more than likely, their lamp had been made by another company. While its not a fake, neither is it a Tiffany.

Between 1895 and 1915, small factories in New York and Chicago produced a huge variety of mosaic stained glass lamps to satisfy a growing demand for stylish lighting designs to complement the new electric lamps. While Tiffany Studios set the industry standard, other companies produced excellent designs as well.

Companies such as Duffner & Kimberly and Gorham, made lamps of a quality equal to Tiffany Studios and created styles that appealed more to the Victorian taste, although on its way out, that the American middle and upper middle class preferred. Some companies, like Wilkinson, made high quality bases, and took short cuts with their shades. Others, like Unique, focused on creating complex shades and paired them with simpler bases. Many copied Tiffany’s Art Nouveau designs—in many instances almost exactly—and many copied each other.

Tiffany lamps are about the most flamboyant art objects ever produced in America. They attract celebrities, speculators, and decorators, whose buying whims have driven the Tiffany market into a frenzy and then leave it a shambles when the next fad comes along. For the last few years, the market for these wonderful leaded-glass lamps, most produced during the first two decades of this century, has been recuperating from a decade-long manic-depressive binge.
During the 1950's, a few pioneer collectors began looking at the sensuous floral lamps made by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Tiffany Studios. Louis was the son of the founder of the famous New York jewelry firm, but for most of his life he preferred painting, the  decorative arts, and interior design.

During the 1960s, interest in the lamps grew rapidly because their restless, fragmented, colorful designs fit nicely into eclectic, psychedelic decorating schemes of that time. Inflation in the 1970's drew investors, speculators, and celebrities into a market where prices sometimes doubled from year to year. Recession in the early 1980's drove those buyers from the market, and prices collapsed. Since then, prices for  some lamps have moved back to, or even above, their former highs; but the market is still very selective one.
The current record price for a Tiffany lamp is the $528,000 paid in December, 1984, at  Christie's in New York City for a large floor lamp with a shade in the Magnolia pattern.  The lamp was one of several being sold by record producer David Geffen, who had been a major Tiffany buyer during the era of hectic growth. Although it was set long after those halcyon days, the record was more a last gasp than a portent of things to come. Today, authentic lamps made by Tiffany Studios and signed either “Louis Comfort Tiffany” or “Tiffany Studios” on the rim of the shade go for as high as $30,000. No wonder there are so many “Tiffphonies” out there. Neither of the lamps pictured here are Tiffanys.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Shining Like a Jewel

QUESTION: My mother had a collection of ruby glass that she left to me. She would always display it around the Christmas holidays. To this day, I still take out select pieces to dress up my holiday table. What can you tell me out this beautiful glass?

ANSWER: Ruby glass is the dark red color of the precious gemstone ruby. This popular Victorian color never went out of style and it’s still cherished today as it was then.

Ruby glass has been around since Roman times. But the secret of making red glass, lost for many centuries, wasn’t rediscovered until the 17th Century in Brandenburg, Bohemia. Johann Kunckel, a chemist from a glass-making family, re-discovered how to make gold ruby glass around 1670.

To make gold ruby glass, include gold chloride, a colloidal gold solution produced by dissolving gold metal in Aqua Regia (nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) in the glass mixture. Tin (stannic chloride) is sometimes added in tiny amounts, making the process both difficult and expensive. The tin has to be present in the two chloride forms because the stannous chloride acts as a reducing agent to bring about the formation of the metallic gold. Depending on the composition of the base glass, the ruby color can develop during cooling, or the glass may have to be reheated to ‘strike’ the color.” Today, glassmakers use selenium to make ruby glass.

Over the years, the number of companies making ruby glass has diminished. Since the EPA has come down hard on these manufacturers, it became too costly to make ruby glass.

Other than its inherent color and possible shape, ruby glass pieces aren’t easily identified. Most Royal Ruby glass wasn’t marked or signed. The glass usually came from the factory with a sticker identifying the ruby color. During the 1940s, ruby glass manufacturers began using stickers which eventually got washed off or pulled off.

Major glass companies such as Sandwich, Cambridge, Mount Vernon, Gadroon, Blenko, Paden City, Hostmaster, Glades, Fenton, and Fostoria all made ruby glass in all the popular Depression glass patterns—Old Cafe, Coronation, Sandwich, Oyster and Pearl, Queen Mary, Manhattan. 

One company, Anchor Hocking, became synonymous with the manufacture of ruby glass. They initially began making and promoting it in 1938. Anchor Hocking's glass, which the company called Royal Ruby, unlike most handmade ruby, used a formula in which the principal colorant was copper. The result, an evenly colored, dark red glass. The amount of Royal Ruby in existence today is tremendous, far more than the amount of red glass from other manufacturers.

Anchor Hocking’s first made Royal Ruby in 1939 in round plates in dinner sets. Since this color became so popular, the company produced pieces of other patterns in this ruby color, including Oysters and Pearls, Old Cafe, Coronation, Bubble, Classic, Manhattan, Queen Mary, and Sandwich. However, difficulty in obtaining copper during World War II, halted production until 1949, after which Anchor Hocking began making an assortment of novelty items— apothecary jars, cigarette boxes, powder boxes, and such—sometimes combining it with crystal.

Footed and unfooted sugar and creamer sets, jam jars with crystal bottoms and ruby lids, plus assorted glasses--ribbed, old cafĂ©, gold rimmed tumblers, and footed wine goblets—were among the myriad of pieces made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ice tea sets with large ice-lipped pitchers and six to eight tumblers were especially popular.

Overall, ruby glass has appreciated in value because, like most glass items, breakage causes scarcity. But many items still sell in the affordable range of $15-65.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Rocking Into Butter

QUESTION: I recently purchased an odd sort of butter churn at a local antique show. It’s a horizontal container suspended by straps to a truncated wooden frame. The only type of butter churn I’ve heard of is the vertical cylindrical type. It has the name and location of the company that made it—"Davis Swing Churn, No. 2, Vermont Farm Machine Co., Bellows Falls, Vt."—painted on both sides. Can you tell me something about it?

ANSWER: What you have is what’s commonly called a “rocking churn.” It seems women used to hook the churn to a rocker using a hook and a length of rope and as they rocked, they pulled the churn from side to side, agitating the cream inside.

To better understand how this type of churn works, it’s important to know how the churning process works. Women used a variety of churns to turn cream into butter. The most common type of churn is the vertical churn into which a person inserted a pole inserted through the lid.

The agitation of the cream, caused by the mechanical motion of the device, disrupts the milk fat. This movement breaks down the membranes that surround the fats in the cream, forming clumps known as butter grains. These butter grains, during the process of churning, fuse with each other and form larger fat globules. The mechanical action introduces air bubbles into these fat globules. The butter grains become more dense as fat globules attach to them while action forces the air out of the mixture. This process creates buttermilk. With constant churning, the fat globules eventually form solid butter and separate from the buttermilk. The butter maker then drains off the buttermilk and squeezes the butter to eliminate excess liquid, forming it into a solid mass.

Historians believe the word “butter” came from the Greek word boutyron, meaning “cow cheese.” That’s because goat’s milk doesn’t work well to produce butter because of its lower fat content.  Evidence for the use of butter dates back as early as 2000 B.C.E.. And the butter churn, itself, may have existed as early as the 6th century A.D. Historians also believe that early nomads may have discovered butter by accident after having filled skin bags with milk and loading them onto pack animals. The movement of the animals shook the bags, creating butter.

Before commercial dairies began producing butter, every home had tools to make its own. Butter churns came in a variety of styles. The most common is a container, made of stoneware in the mid-19th century and later of wood, where the person making the butter creates it by moving a pole, inserted into the lid, in a vertical motion. This type of churn is also known as an “up-and-down”’ churn, plunger churn, plumping churn, or knocker churn.  The staff used in the churn is called a dash, dasher-staff, churn-staff, churning-stick, or plunger.

Another common type of butter churn is the paddle churn. The butter maker turned a handle that operated a paddle inside a container, causing the cream to become butter. Yet another type is the barrel churn. This consists of a barrel turned onto its side with a crank attached. The crank either turns a paddle device inside the churn, as in the paddle churn, or turns the whole barrel, whose action converts the milk to butter.

Finally, there the rocking chair butter churn, invented by Alfred Clark. This device, invented by Alfred Clark, consisted of a barrel attached to a rocking chair. While the rocking chair moved, the barrel moved and churned the milk within into butter. Today, a rocking butter churn in good condition sells for over $500.