Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Age of Innocence - Part 1

QUESTION: My mother collected Hummel figurines for a long time. Now I have her collection. Frankly, I don’t know anything about these little figures of children, other than what little I’ve read or heard. Can you give me some background about my Hummels? I’d like to continue collecting them, but have no idea where to start.

ANSWER: You’re in the same boat as a lot of other people who inherit collections from their parents. Some sell them off because they have no interest in them, but others, like yourself, want to continue collecting. However, since you weren’t involved in the original collection, it’s hard to pick up where someone else left off. One thing you must remember: Your mother’s Hummel collection is now your collection. And the first thing you need to do is learn as much as you can about your Hummels, so you can make educated decisions when growing or culling your collection.

Hummel figures have long been one of the world’s top collectibles, though interest in them has waned a bit in recent years. The artist who created these endearing figurines, Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, was inspired by her love and understanding of children.

Born Berta Hummel on May 21, 1909, in the Bavarian village of Massing to Adolf and Viktoria Hummel, who owned a general store. She had two brothers and three sisters. When her father was young, he wanted to become an artist but gave that up to run the family business. To make up for it, he made sure that art and music were part of his family’s life. Berta’s mother gave her the nickname, “das Hummele,” which means the “little busy bee,” because Berta was always buzzing from one creative pursuit to another.

One of her teachers at the Massing Grammar School, Sister Theresa, encouraged Berta to pursue her art and helped her gain admission to the Institute of English Sisters, a boarding school in the town of Simbach, about 20 miles from her home. While there, Berta spent hours sketching the surrounding mountain countryside. It was then that her parents noticed the intensity of Berta’s commitment to her art work. 

From there Berta went to the Academy of Applied Arts in Munich in 1927. During this time, Germany was in political and economic upheaval. Although Berta’s attendance at the school placed great financial hardship on her family, she studied in one of the best art programs offered in Europe at the time. From the Academy, it was only a short walk to the Alte Pinakothek, one of the most famous art museums in Bavaria, where Berta discovered the old masters.

While Berta was living in the Holy Family Dormitory, she became close friends with two Franciscan sisters from a convent at Siessen,. near the town of Saulgau in the Swabian Alps. They told Berta about the art classes taught at the convent, and she began considering joining it.

Berta entered the Siessen Convent on April 22, 1931, where as a Franciscan postulate she taught art to young children. Berta Hummel received her habit of the sisters of Third Order of Saint Francis on August 20, 1934, and was given the name Sister Maria Innocentia. As a nun, the feelings of innocence would always be part of her artistic life.

Soon a small religious publishing house, ver Sacrum, became interested in her work that included religious illustrations with children. It was also at this time that people throughout Germany and the rest of Europe began noticing her work, due to ver Sacrum’s distribution of her art cards depicting children in religious scenes. She even collaborated on a children's book entitled, The Hummel Book, with Margareta Seeman, who wrote the verse.

Since Sister Maria had taken a vow of poverty, she had no interest in profiting from her art. Instead, the publishing house set up a trust fund to receive royalties, which could then be used by the convent to pay for religious activities. Ver Sacrum also agreed to give Sister Maria final approval on all items they produced, before production began.

The first M.I. Hummel figurines appeared on the market in March 1935. Her art appealed to the masses because people could see a little bit of themselves in her work.

But in 1937, the Nazis said  that Sister Maria’s art wasn’t consistent with their goals. But they let her continue to work on it, nonetheless. She continued to create art in her studio on the second floor of the Siessen Convent. However, in 1938 her health began to fail.

In October of 1940 the Nazis expropriated the convent and sent most of the nuns to their own homes and families. However, Sister Maria stayed behind with 40 other sisters. Food, living conditions and especially the heating of the convent buildings was less then adequate. And medical and art supplies  were nearly impossible to find.

During the fall of 1944, Sister Maria Irmocentia Hummel developed pleurisy, but she continued to live and work at the convent until the war ended. When her health would allow it, she would continue with her art. She provided inspiration to the other sisters who stayed on at the convent through those difficult times: The tubercular lung infection that took so much of her strength eventually got worse, and she became weaker. She died on November 6, 1946, at the age of 37.

Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel left a rich heritage of over 500 sketches and paintings. And her work lives on today in countless collections throughout the world.

NEXT WEEK: The other side of the story—the creation of the figurines, themselves.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Back to Nature

QUESTION: Recently I got a rustic night stand from my grandmother’s house after she died. She had once said that it came from a sale of furniture from a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains here in New York State. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a funky piece, and I’d like to know more about it. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Your grandmother’s night stand is indeed a piece of rustic furniture, also known as Adirondack furniture, even though it wasn’t restricted to just the Adirondack region.

The idea for rustic furniture came about in the late 18th century at the beginning of the back-to-nature movement, a change from the world of classic, predictable furniture patterns to one of more fanciful design using natural materials. 

Little summer shelters appeared in city gardens, often covered in vines or surrounded by trees and shrubs. These summerhouses also provided a small green refuge that shut out the discomfort and ugliness of city life.

Designers copied nature's lines in drawings for chairs and settees for these shelters and the garden paths around them. Their plans called for gnarled, distorted limbs of shrubs and trees to make a chair or bench, instead of the usual marble or plain wooden seats. Gardens, themselves, became more picturesque and less formal, with curving paths taking the place of straight ones. Designers strategically placed rustic chairs, benches, arbors and gates throughout the plantings.

At the same time came the discovery of warm springs in America. Basic living conditions were the rule in the hotels and cottages that sprung up around the springs. The coarse furniture changed from plain and primitive to fanciful and rustic as hotel owners updated amenities.

By the late 19th century, America’s millionaires filled the resorts, but although they considered themselves naturalists, they dressed and lived formally in the midst of the rustic furniture, for they had no intention of roughing it.

But some of these naturalists set up their own camps with tents and log cabins and built rustic furniture for them or had local craftsmen do it for them. Eventually, the log cabins became large log houses with all the latest amenities. Soon they became known as compounds or family camps. However, life in these camps was more back-to-nature and relaxed than at the warm springs resorts.

Rustic outdoor furniture filled the porches of these houses and spilled onto the grass. Couches and chairs made of rough pieces of local woods, holding loose cushions, adorned the sitting rooms. Even the beds showed off the rustic style, often with fanciful patterns on the head and foot boards.

The term rustic furniture covers a functional style made of organic materials, such as the tree or shrub limbs and roots or the trunks of saplings indigenous to area of the craftsman. Although roughly made, the style was often sophisticated and imaginative. The more knots there were in the limbs, the more the designers favored them. They even left the bark on the wood whenever possible to give each piece more texture and individuality.

In the Adirondack region of New York State, craftsmen made rustic furniture for the wealthy families who had camps there. They used large, gnarly roots in their furniture designs, making them into table legs and chair arms. They favored birch to build with, a slender tree with bark that peels in strips, giving the craftsmen a striking veneer for their furniture. These pieces quickly became known for their geometric designs made of the white birch bark veneer, especially on case furniture, such as your night stand. Also, many of the intricate veneered designs included various kinds of split twigs, carefully chosen by color to form patterns.

Appalachian craftsmen took pride in knowing how to get wood to work for the intricate twists, bends and weaving for their furniture designs. They knew just when and how to bend saplings while they were still growing, letting nature do some of the work before they were ready to use the wood. The best woods to use were laurel, hickory and willow because of their flexibility and strength. They built their furniture with graceful loops and interwoven curves, weaving each piece of wood to create tension, resulting in a hid-den strength disguised by the fragile look of the design.

Today, you’ll find rustic pieces at higher-end antique shows. Occasionally, they’ll appear at flea markets. But people consigned a lot of pieces to the bonfire after they went out of fashion in the mid-20th century. So prices tend to be on the high side because of the uniqueness of the pieces. Twig rockers can sell for $150 and up, while lounges and settees can go over $2,000.
Case pieces rarely come on the market and when they do, their prices are exceptionally high, often in the four and five figure range. The most common pieces are various chairs and plant stands, priced anywhere from $75 to $600.

As the 20th century moved forward, individual craftsmen found it hard to keep up with the volume of orders, so factories opened to meet the need. Business remained brisk for the rural craftsmen until the 1940s and by the 1950s, rustic furniture was no longer popular.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Born Again Glass

QUESTION: I’ve recently started to collect colored Victorian glassware. But the more I get into it, the more confused I’ve become. On more than one occasion, I’ve been sold pieces produced in the 1960s that the dealer insisted were authentic. How can I tell the difference between the real thing and reproductions and downright fakes?

ANSWER: You’re not alone. The antiques world has become swamped with imitations and fakes. Imitators pray on the ignorance of many dealers, especially those in the lower end of the market selling at fleamarkets. Most of these dealers sell whatever they can buy at a reasonable price at garage and house sales. Others sell on auction sites like eBay. Just because a dealer feeds you a line about the authenticity of a piece of glass doesn’t make it so. In fact, unlike other forms of antiques, glass is particularly susceptible to scams because most of it shows no maker’s mark.

The demand for colored Victorian glassware continues to increase, causing the prices for it in some cases to skyrocket due to supply and demand. Most colored, Victorian glassware is now highly collectable. Therefore, copies and imitations have increasingly appeared on dealers’ shelves and tables.

This trend seems to have begun during the 1960s and has continued until today. You’ve already noticed the confusion at antique shows, shops, malls and fleamarkets. So if you intend to get serious about collecting Victorian glassware, then you must be able to visually separate the old items from the new and not-so-new. This means wading through the imitations, reissues, copies and reproductions until you find the real thing.

Dealers add to this confusion by intermingling glassware from the 1930s through the mid-1980s with older pieces. And just because a dealer seems to specialize in antique glassware doesn’t make him or her less suspect. Most collectors and dealers are nonspecialists, and therefore make buying and selling errors. The bottom line is that you equip yourself with the knowledge of the type of glassware that you want to collect. An educated collector is a wise one. This is the only way you can be assured of purchasing authentic pieces. So how can you do this?

Numerous national glass organizations promote details about their particular category of glassware. They track and report on the various reproductions and look-a-likes in their newsletters and Web sites. From these, you can acquire considerable knowledge in a relatively short time.

The worst culprits are the reproductions, reissues, and copies produced in the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s especially hard for those, like yourself, who have entered the glassware field in the last decade. One company, L.G. Wright Glass Company of New Martinsville, West Virginia, stands out among others.

Beginning in the late 1030s, Wright began buying up old glass molds from closed American glass factories. And this is the rub with glass. Unlike other antiques, makers produce glassware from molds as well as blowing. One of the biggest inventions in the 19th century was the discovery of the process to make molded pressed glass. Generally, molds are durable, so if a maker today can get their hands on some old ones, they can essentially produce the same pieces from the original molds. Glass can also be blown into a mold, a process used to manufacture items like lamp shades and water pitchers.

Instead of making the glass himself, Wright contracted with glass houses such as Fenton, Fostoria and Westmoreland to reissue glass using his molds. He then sold the finished pieces to various dealers, jobbers and wholesale outlets. Many of these glass patterns ultimately found their way into various antique shows and shops throughout the country. If marked at all, the glassware usually just had a paper label. Once the label fell off or was removed, dealers could represent these reproductions as authentic pieces to unsuspecting collectors like yourself. Now that 30 to 40 years have passed, many of these reproductions have acquired some wear, which adds still more to the difficulty of identifying them as reproductions or look-a-likes of the Victorian patterns.

While few reproductions can pass as authentic when placed side by side with original pieces, few collectors have the opportunity to do so. Fortunately, you can find a lot of information in books and periodicals and online that will help you identify the fakes.

Look for the following when trying to tell the difference between the real thing and a fake or reproduction:

1. Find out if possible if the pattern you wish to collect has been reproduced.
2. Feel the glass. Old glass is generally thicker and thus heavier than newer glass.
3. Look for signs of wear, usually scratches on the bottom and perhaps tiny chips on edges and rims.
4. Old pieces show a more defined, detailed pattern than newer ones. The more glass manufacturers use a mold the softer the edges become.
5. Look for ground off rims. This indicates either a newer piece or an old one that was so badly chipped that it needed to be ground down—especially salt and pepper shakers.
6. Be wary of maker’s marks that have been etched into the glass. Makers of older pieces either had no marks or used paper labels.