Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mementos of Places Visited

QUESTION: My grandad traveled a lot for business, and from everywhere he went, he brought back a miniature replica of a famous building. By the time he died, he had amassed over 100 of these tacky souvenirs. And now I have them. To me, they’re just that, tacky souvenirs, but to him I’m sure they brought back memories of the places he had visited. What can you tell me about such replicas? How did they get started? Are they worth anything?

ANSWER: Replicas of souvenir buildings have been around since Victorian times. They fill the shelves of tourist-trap souvenir shops all over the world, lined up like soldiers waiting for a command to go to war. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself who would buy such tacky items? The answer, believe it or not, is lots of people. And their popularity seems to be on the upswing.

Like the lost city of Atlantis rising slowly from beneath the sea, long-forgotten souvenir buildings are now emerging from cellars, closets and attics. Souvenir buildings have attracted a diverse following among designers, architects, history buffs, lawyers, and ordinary collectors. These little structures, singly or in groups, provide a rich treasure-trove of memories. And this, after all, is one of the basic functions of a souvenir.

A souvenir serves as a reminder of an experience, place, or culture. In French, the word means “to remember.” Whatever the object—whether a building, a plate with a picture on it, an ashtray, or a fan—it evokes a memory that’s often supplemented by a personal story or recollection.

Building replicas are just one of thousands of souvenir items which travelers have brought back home over the years. They rage in size from one to ten inches high and  include famous structures such as the Colosseum in Rome and obscure ones like the Buffalo Savings and Loan in upstate New York. Although metal is the preferred medium for most collectors, souvenir buildings have been produced in almost every conceivable material, including cast iron, pot metal, sterling silver, silver gilt, pottery, pewter, brass, plastic, and cast resin. The last is sometimes painted and sometimes “metalized” in brass, silver, or copper.

The tradition of collecting miniature buildings goes back to Victorian times when travelers on the European Grand Tour would purchase models as mementos of their journeys. These were usually recognizable landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Such a replica made a nice ornament or present and served as a reminder that the traveler had "been abroad.”

Ever since, travelers to Europe have been returning with small churches, castles, Roman gates, triumphal arches, commemorative columns, basilicas, bullfight arenas, and so on. Because of Europe's bloody history, war monuments to the fallen or to the victorious make up an entire subcategory of historic interest.

In fact, it’s possible to collect souvenir buildings and monuments that trace Napoleon’s march across Europe, beginning with a replica of Napoleon’s Column in the Place Vendome in Paris, which commemorates his victory over the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

But most people are more familiar with the little replicas of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty that marked many a family’s first trip to New York City. Other grander structures include cathedrals and basilicas all across Europe. Pilgrims to these religious centers have purchased tiny replicas ever since they first became available.

Another category would include buildings from World's Fairs and Expositions: the Christopher Columbus monument from the International Exposition of 1888 in Barcelona, the Atomium from the Brussel’s World’s Fair in 1958, and the Eiffel Tower from the Paris World's Fair of 1889—perhaps the third most popular replica after the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

Collectors have created many categories to help them sort through the thousands of souvenir buildings and monuments on the market. Most acquire a jumble of all sorts of buildings, monuments, and "does-this-really-count-as-architecture" replicas, such as a metal miniature of Mt. Rushmore.

The beginning of souvenir building popularity began in the U.S. at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. Three versions of Independence Hall, each one a different size, were available at the fair. Today, these command prices of several thousand dollars each. Independence Hall has also been reproduced in red and white plastic, in an aluminum-like alloy, and, most recently, in pewter.

The next big date was 1888 and the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Replicas of the statue were made and sold to help-raise money for the funding of the base. The elegant bronze castings known as The "Bertholdi model," named after Miss Liberty's sculptor„ became available at that time and have since become both scarce and pricey. For the rest of us, millions of Statues of Liberty have been churned out since then, making Miss Liberty one of the most popular miniature monuments ever produced.

Because there are so many souvenir buildings on the market, both old and new, collectors don’t usually have to pay too much for them. This makes these tacky souvenirs an ideal collectible for anyone who’s on a budget. But even if a person overpays for a replica of the Parthenon, it will still cost less than round-trip airfare to Athens.

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