Monday, January 30, 2017

Far East Fakes

QUESTION: I recently purchased a secretary. From my research online, I think it’s done in the Napoleonic Egyptian Revival style. The piece isn’t in great shape, but I would like to know how to determine if it’s a reproduction or is, indeed, an antique, and if so, how old is it?

ANSWER: At first glance your piece looks like an elegant secr√©taire √† abattant or a drop-front desk from the French Empire Period. But upon closer inspection, you should notice certain discrepancies. While it may look like a piece from the early 19th century, it isn’t a reproduction, but a poorly made facsimile. That’s not a fake, but a piece of furniture made to simulate a particular style.

Since the 1990s, there’s been a flood of “antique” furniture coming into the U.S. from Indonesia. While high-end antique dealers and experts can tell immediately that it’s not authentic, the typical antique dealer can’t. A high-end dealer sells quality and provenance at up-scale shows while most shop dealers are just interested in selling to make a fast buck.

So what makes this drop-front desk a possible candidate for Indonesian facsimile antique furniture? There are three construction clues that even a novice antiques collector can use to identify Indonesian facsimiles: First, Indonesian furniture makers use  a single species of wood  throughout. Second, they hot-glue many of the joints. And third, they use common nails—both finishing and flathead.

Since there are few legal restrictions on how furniture makers can market or advertise wood,  trade names have been developed to help promote little known wood or to make common woods sound more valuable.

The wood in Indonesian reproduction furniture, for example, comes from the groups Shorea, Parashorea, and Pentacme which grow in Asia and aren’t true mahogany. However, all of them can be legally advertised and sold as "mahogany." Two other generic trade names for these woods are Philippine mahogany and Lauan mahogany. The genuine mahogany used in fine antique furniture comes from a different group called Swietenia, originating in Central and South America, Cuba, Honduras, and the West Indies.

So why do Indonesian furniture makers use only one type of wood? The answer is simple. Since they’re using a lesser quality wood, they can afford to use it for an entire piece. Cabinetmakers of the 18th and early 19th century used expensive mahogany on the outside of a piece of furniture where it would be seen and lesser quality woods on the inside out of sight. It would have been impractical for a cabinetmaker back then to use mahogany for a glue block, for example, when no one would ever see it.

Another reason to use more than one type of wood was weight. Larger pieces of 18th and 19th-century furniture would have been too heavy if cabinetmakers used mahogany for entire pieces. Indonesian facsimiles are actually heavier than authentic antiques because they use dense Philippine mahogany.

Cabinetmakers of the 18th and early 19th century used dowels, splines, or special cuts, such as mortise and tenon, to join pieces of wood. They didn’t use nails because they cost more and didn’t hold the joints as well. And they didn’t use screws because they didn’t exist at that time. Indonesian furniture makers tend to use hot glue or common nails to join wood. Hot-glued joints tend to split with shrinkage. Plus the hot glue will fluoresce under black light.

Countersunk finishing nails are commonly used on Indonesian facsimiles. In fact, makers often use wider, filled in countersunk holes to simulate the effect of using wooden pegs.

Now let’s take a look at the details on this drop-front desk to see why it isn’t a real antique. Mahogany veneer has been applied to all the outside surfaces. However, the drawers don’t seem to be veneered but are made of solid pieces. And all the parts of the drawers seem to be made of the same Philippine mahogany wood. Because the wood isn’t real mahogany, it doesn’t have the beautiful grain pattern of the real thing. Also, the grain on the drop-front is horizontal but the grain on the drawers, like the sides, is vertical. Certainly all the grain on the front should be going in the same direction.

The brass fittings or ormulu are very poorly cast and finished. The escutcheons—keyhole surrounds—seem to be nailed rather than screwed into place. The brass fittings are of several different styles0—Baroque, neoclassical anthemium combinations, and egg and dart molding. The masks look more Phoenician or Egyptian, as do the heavy drawer pulls. The plaque in the center of the drop front is “Autumn” from the four-seasons series produced in bisque by Royal Copenhagen, but, it too, is poorly cast. The bows with streaming tails are the Baroque-style decorations. The overall effect tries to be elegant, but individually the decorations don’t go together.

Much of this type of furniture has surfaced in the American antiques market. Some unscrupulous dealers, knowing that their clientele wouldn’t know the difference, have imported it to sell in their shops. Other pieces have been bought and sold several times in the last 20 years and have successfully become part of the overall antiques market inventory. Sometimes one of these facsimiles will even make it to an antique show because the dealer hasn’t done any research or ignores the lack of provenance. In this case, the dealer will sell if for less, but still make a profit on the unsuspecting buyer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Remembrances in China

QUESTION: I recently purchased a souvenir plate at an antique show. The plate shows a picture of Jackson Square in New Orleans and has a stencil-like border design around its edge. On the bottom is a mark that says “Wheelock, Made in Germany for the Curio Store, Canal St., New Orleans, La.” What can you tell me anything about Wheelock? I’ve never heard of that china company.

ANSWER: Souvenir china was popular from the last two decades of the 19th century to eh first decade of the 20th because most of the pieces came from Germany and Austria and with the outbreak of World War I, the flow of pieces stopped. 

Tourism blossomed during the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. As people traveled, they collected souvenirs as remembrances of where they had been and what they had seen. Postcards, photographs and small items of souvenir china became popular. At first, all of the souvenir china came from Europe.

Souvenir china is often overlooked by serious collectors of antiques, yet it’s a fascinating part of Americana, especially pieces produced from 1890 to 1916. Merchants in over 2,000 villages and towns throughout the U.S. sold a variety of pieces, each featuring a local landmark—a church, school, store, bank, river, train depot, street, hospital, or historical site or monument.

China collectors consider Wheelock one of the founders of ceramic pictorial souvenir ware in the U.S. It wasn’t a large firm but a cooperative enterprise owned by three brothers—Charles, George, and Arthur Wheelock.

In 1877, Charles took charge of a store selling fine china in South Bend, Indiana. Five years later, his brother George joined Charles as a clerk in the store. A year after that, George opened his own store, also in South Bend. In 1887, Charles moved his business to Peoria, Illinois, while George operated the two stores in South Bend. About 1888, a third brother, Arthur, opened a branch of the Wheelock stores in Rockford, Illinois, with later branches in Des Moines, Iowa and Milwaukee. A fourth son, Frank, remained with his father store in Janesville, Wisconsin.

The Wheelocks became one of the largest wholesalers and retailers of fine china in the United States. When Charles moved his business to Peoria, he hired John H. Roth to work for him, and the brothers became interested in a new enterprise, souvenir china. Their contacts with German and Austrian potteries, which produced their fine china, provided a source for the souvenir ware.

Around 1894, the Wheelock Brothers hired traveling salesmen specifically to market souvenir china in the towns and hamlets of Illinois and nearby states. The salesmen carried pattern books that listed the hundreds of shapes available. The merchants provided the scenic photos which the salesmen sent to the European potteries which   reproduced them as black decals that workers applied to the porcelain blanks before the initial firing. Other workers hand colored the pieces and applied other decoration before the final firing. A hand-painted label identified the scene on each piece.

Most of the pieces received a stamp on the bottom or back with the name and town of the merchant as well as the word Wheelock and the town and/or country where it had been produced. The European potteries then shipped the pieces directly to the shopkeepers. 

The Wheelocks continued to produce souvenir china until the start of World War I when access to the European potteries ended. Unfortunately, it never resumed.

Wheelock souvenir ware comes in over 1,500 shapes and sizes, ranging from 2-inch trinket boxes to 12½-inch dishes and plates. More than 80 percent of the pieces produced were white porcelain. Less than 20 percent were white porcelain coated on the outside with cobalt blue or, in a few cases, dark green pigment.

Of more than 7,000 different pieces of white Wheelock souvenir china, a little more than half are plates, the most popular of which ranged in size from 5½ to 6½ inches in diameter. The most common of these are smooth-edged rimless plates, ranging in size from 3½  to 10 inches in diameter. Creamers and cups each represent a bit less than 10 percent of the pieces.

The makeup of the shapes of the cobalt pieces isn’t the same as the white porcelain ones. Creamers are the most common, representing 20 percent of the more than 1,400 cobalt pieces. There are nearly as many cobalt vases as creamers. Cobalt cups, toothpick holders, and dishes follow in that order.

Today, the average price of a piece of Wheelock china is around $20. But some of the more unique ones, like beer steins, have sold for several hundred dollars. Prices paid for Wheelock pieces vary widely, with the higher prices being paid for some unique pieces or historic locations. For example, a dish from the historic mining town of Lead, S.D., sold for $242, while a dish from Watertown, South Dakota, sold for $24. Plates tend to sell for more than other forms.

Part of the enjoyment of collecting souvenir china is the search. Even though Wheelock had thousands of pieces made, they’re scattered all over the country. Antique shops in the East and Midwest seem to have more of them than shops in the South and West since nearly 75 percent are souvenirs of the former areas.

Read more about Victorian souvenirs in  "Wish You Were Here," the story of souvenir postcards in The Antiques Almanac.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Egg and I

QUESTION: On a trip to England several years ago, I discovered the joys of eating a soft-boiled egg for breakfast. Of course, the waitress served my egg standing straight up in an egg cup. I became fascinated by these unique little pedestals and purchased several to take home as souvenirs of my trip. After I got home, I started to notice them at flea markets, so I began to buy more. Now I have over 50 of them. How did the egg cup come to be? Who invented it? And why isn’t it used widely here in the U.S.?

ANSWER: While Americans aren’t as keen on eating soft-boiled eggs as their British counterparts, egg cups have won the hearts of many collectors.

Egg cups come in many types, styles and categories, from delicate hand-painted works of art to outrageous caricatures made to represent everything from members of the British royal family to current cartoon characters. Manufacturers use many different materials to produce egg cups, including glass, wood, stone and even plastic.

Egg cups have been used in British cultures for centuries. Though people commonly refer to them as egg cups, they can also be called egg holders. Either way, they’re shallow dishes designed to hold a boiled egg in its shell. Wealthy persons living along the East Coast of the U.S. used them until the mid-1960s, essentially imitating the breakfast habits of their British cousins. But their use never really caught on with the middle class, who instead discovered prepared foods.

Historians believe the Romans were using egg cups before 79 A.D. Clearly, eggs cooked in the shell can be unmanageable without a small receptacle to hold them in place.

The most common egg cup, designed to hold a single egg, is called a single. Less common are doubles. Doubles have a cup on either end, a small one to hold a single egg, or if user turns up the larger end, it will hold one or more eggs out of the shell or the egg of a larger bird such as a duck or goose. There are also bucket egg cups, which  have no pedestal, “Hoop” egg cups resemble napkin rings and can be “straight” or “waisted.” Americans often mistaken them for wide napkin rings. Side-by-side doubles and flat oval egg cups, designed to hold an egg lying on its side and used more often for hard boiled eggs, can be more difficult to find. Egg cups can also come in sets of four to as many as a dozen, on a single matching serving piece for family use. Some egg cups include a spoon and/or a small scissors, often referred to as an egg decapitator.

In Britain and many European countries egg cups are still a standard part of a place setting of china. Since they’re still used in the average home, the easier to find. And since they’re used widely, egg cups from most of the major makers, such as Goebel in Germany, Carlton Ware, Staffordshire, Adams and numerous others in England, are readily available.

Figural egg cups, featuring cartoon character, such as Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird, are popular with collectors. Other categories include commemorative, political, advertising, holiday, caricatures, transportation, children's, and black memorabilia.  Any of these categories may be made from glass, porcelain, pottery or ceramic. Metals used for egg cup production include gold, silver, copper and pewter. Stone such as marble and many varieties of woods also may be used to produce egg cups.

Egg cup collectors, called pocillovists, must do their homework in order to know what’s available and to watch out for misrepresentation. Because egg cups aren’t an everyday item in the American household, many sellers who acquire eggcups from estates or family sales don’t know what they have and will misrepresent them as something else such as an open salt cellar. Sellers will occasionally misrepresent a common egg cup as something more rare. Serious egg cup collectors agree that chips, cracks, or other flaws are not acceptable.

The Internet has made egg tugs readily available to collectors and is responsible to some degree for the blossoming interest in the United States. However, prices tend to go up and down. Common egg cups can sell for less than a dollar while rarer ones can cost in the hundreds of dollars.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Four Times the Beauty?

QUESTION: I recently bought an unusual blackened metal coffee pot at a local antique coop. The person on duty told me it was silver plate.  The mark on the bottom of the pot says “WALDORF SILVER PLATE CO. QUADRUPLE PLATE.” Why is the pot so black and tarnished? Can it be re-plated? And exactly what is quadruple plate?

ANSWER: From the shape of your pot, it seems you’ve discovered a Victorian silver plated water pitcher, not a coffee pot. Coffee pots from this time were taller and slimmer and had a porcelain enameled metal lining. You’ve also asked about one of the mysteries of antique collecting—the extreme tarnishing of what were supposed to be high quality silver plate pieces.

The gleam of polished silver has always been a real joy to the owner be he or she rich or poor. But the cost for all but the very rich was prohibitive. The invention of the process of electroplating changed all that.

The first step towards making silver more affordable came around 1839 with the development of  electroplating. Electroplating was possible as a result of increased knowledge of electrical theory and the galvanic batteries needed in the process. Workers suspended the object to be plated in a conductive solution along with an electrode of pure silver. Passage of electric current through the solution caused pure silver to be deposited on the object to be plated. Direct current generators eventually replaced the original batteries as a source of electricity, enabling manufacturers to use  plating tanks large enough for mass production.

Electroplating was the ideal process to produce durable and attractive articles that had most of the desirable qualities of pure silver at a fraction of the cost. The only alternative process was Sheffield plate, a mechanical process that bonded pure silver to copper by heat. But electroplating soon took over the market.

“White metal," or Britannia metal which had the same characteristics as pewter, or nickel silver usually formed the base for electroplating. Unlike pewter, Britannia contained no lead in the alloy, making it a superior product. The usual composition of Britannia consisted of 140 parts tin, 3 parts copper, and 10 parts antimony.

The finest, and most expensive, objects used nickel silver as the base metal for plating. Nickel silver was an alloy composed of 5 percent to 25 percent nickel, 65 percent copper, and 10 percent to 30 percent zinc. The resultant metal was strong, took the plating perfectly, and even if the plated surface became worn, the nickel silver underneath was a good match for the silver plating.

Although plated objects were far less expensive than solid silver, they were still relatively expensive for the average family. For example a six-piece, silver plate on nickel silver  tea and coffee service, consisting of large and small teapots, coffeepot, sugar dish and creamer, cost around $160 in 1867. A comparable set using silver plate on Britannia metal was around $50 in the same period. The sixth piece was known as a "slop." It enabled the gracious hostess to quickly dispose of the dregs in the bottom of the cup before offering her guest a fresh cup of tea or coffee. The "slop" was an open topped vessel made to match the design of the other pieces.

In addition to the conventional tea and coffee services, 19th-century manufacturers of silver plate offered many other items, including pitchers, trays, casters, wine bottles stands, egg holders, cake dishes, goblets and cups. In addition there was a wide variety of toilet articles available, including soap dishes, tooth-brush holders and bowl and pitcher sets. The truly elegant home might have a silver plated parlor spittoon with locking cover. These sold for $4.50 to $6.25 in 1867, depending on how ornate they were.

At its peak, the silver plating industry during the late 19th century centered around Meriden, Connecticut. It was here in 1867 that Dennis C. and Horace C. Wilcox entered the holloware trade, first dealing in Britannia pieces. Later, around 1867, they established the Wilcox Silver Plate Company and started making quadruple plated holloware.

But what exactly is quadruple plate? Within the silver plate holloware industry, items marked of “Standard” indicated that 2 troy ounces of pure silver had been used to silver electroplate 144 teaspoons. Items marked "Quadruple Plate," on the other hand, used 8 troy ounces of silver to plate the same 144 spoons. Thus, quadruple silver plate pieces  were four times as heavily plated with silver than items  marked "Standard" silver plate.

So why then are so many quadruple plated silver pieces in such tarnished condition. While four times the amount of silver had been used to plate them, the layers of plating on quadruple plate were much thinner than standard plating. And while silver is stable in pure air and water, it tarnishes quickly when exposed to ozone, hydrogen sulphide, or air containing sulphur. Victorian homes not only had some of these elements present due to the use of coal-burning stoves and fireplaces, but many upper middle-class homes had overzealous servants who polished the silver pieces incessantly. Each time a servant polished a piece of quadruple plated silver, he or she removed some of the silver.

However, pieces plated on nickel silver, such as those produced Rogers Brothers and Reed & Barton, don’t look as bad today because of their nickel silver base. And, yes, any piece of quadruple plate can be re-plated to look as good as when it was new. But the cost to value ratio isn’t very good, so re-plating may cost more than the piece, itself, is worth.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Caretaker or Curator–Which are You?

QUESTION: My father collected old tools. He would scour the tables of flea markets and yard sales to find interesting and unique tools to add to his collection. He passed away last year and left me his collection. I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m not particularly interested in old tools. Do you have any suggestions?

ANSWER: Here’s a good example of a collection that has been passed down from father to son. It’s also a good example of the predicament that many people find themselves in when a relative dies and leaves them something that was dear to them.

It seems that you have taken over the job of acting curator for your father’s collection.  While there’s nothing wrong in that, you’re missing out on the joy of collecting—the search for other pieces and buying the ones that you like. But you shouldn’t feel bad. This is more often the case than not.

The important thing to note here is that this collection is your father’s. It was he who actively sought out the various items. It was he who did the research to find out what tools men used in the 19th century. And it was he who saw the connections between the tools and the jobs they helped men do.
Currently, you’re simply caretaker of your father’s collection. One option you have is to sell the collection, in its entirety or piece by piece. You could sell it to another tool collector or a dealer for a lump sum and not be concerned about how much you get for it. In fact, you won’t get anything near to what it’s worth. Or you can do some research and find out just how valuable these tools are. However, if you decide to keep the collection, then you must become its curator.

A curator 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—caretaker or curator? 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.