Wednesday, July 26, 2017

It's a Small, Small World

QUESTION: I love old jewelry. Recently, I attended an antique show and one of the dealers had a case of old jewelry that got my attention. I was drawn to a beautiful old handpainted brooche. When I asked about it, the dealer said that it wasn’t painted at all but was made of hundreds of tiny glass pieces assembled in a mosaic scene. He said this method was called “micromosaic.” I wanted to buy the brooche on the spot, but it’s price was out of my range. Can you tell me what “micromosaic” is and a little about its history?

ANSWER: Sir Arthur Gilbert, a wealthy 20th-century collector, came up with the term “micromosaic” to describe Roman mosaics composed of little glass bricks called tesserae. Roman jewelers sold this type of miniature mosaic, made up of 1,500 to 5,000 pieces per square inch, to Victorian ladies on the Grand Tour in the early and mid-19th century.

While the most common forms were brooches and pendants, Roman jewelers also sold micromosaics in combinations called a parure, consisting of a matching necklace, earrings, brooch, bracelet and often a diadem or tiara. A variation on this is the demiparure which consists of as few as two matching pieces, such as earrings and a necklace or brooch. They also sold the pieces individually. Cemented to a glass, stone, or metal background and framed, the glass tesserae were originally so small that these pieces appeared to have been painted or enameled—that is until examined under a microscope.

The Victorians developed a passionate interest in the Classical Period of antiquities. They could purchase a brooche or other piece of jewelry containing an image of the Colosseum, the ancient ruins of Pompeii, or the beautiful scenery of the Italian countryside. To them, the jewelry acted as a wearable souvenir of their travels. Other popular motifs included miniature versions of ancient architectural mosaics, ancient wall paintings like those found at Herculean, King Charles spaniels, and mythological and religious figures.

Micro mosaic jewelry originated at the Vatican, which had its own secret formula for making glass-like enamel tesserae. During the mid-1770s, a few of the Vatican artists began making miniature mosaic art using tiny tessarae, creating the first micromosaics. They crafted miniature boxes, crosses, and jewelry to sell to visitors using typical Roman ruins and other familiar scenes of Italy.

The excavations at Pompeii, which had been completely covered by the volcanic eruption in A.D.79, uncovered a city that provided a glimpse of an ancient civilization almost beyond belief to the Victorian travelers. The mosaic columns, garden fountains and stone floors, some dating as early as the second century B.C.,were breathtakingly beautiful and found their way into the art of micromosaics.

Soon, commercial mosaic studios began opening in Rome, offering the rapidly growing tourist market micromosaic mementos of ancient Roman ruins. In the early days, the average European traveler could only afford micro mosaics set into pill boxes and paperweights, but wealthier travelers could afford elaborate pictures, tabletops, and jewelry.

Perhaps the most important designer of micromosiac jewelry was Castellani, an Italian workshop founded in 1814 and run by artisan Fortunato Pio Castellani and craftsman and Dante scholar Michelangelo Caetani. They took much of their inspiration from archaeological digs in ancient Rome and Egypt. Castellani’s artisans set their unusually fine micromosaic work  in gold frames, adorned with Etruscan filigree and granulation. Often, they would incorporate Latin sayings in their mosaic designs, using Roman capitals surrounded by geometric designs.

The work of the Castellani family greatly influenced another famous Italian jeweler, Carlo Guiuliano. During the 1860s, he set up shop in London. His work concentrated more on the reproduction of Italian Renaissance jewelry than Roman and Etruscan designs, fashioning his pieces to Victorian taste. After his death, his two sons, Frederico and Ferdinando, continued the business until it closed in 1914. A signed Guiuliano gold necklace, matching brooch and earrings, with Roman mosaic of putti, muses and flowers, is worth about $5,000 to $6,000 in today's market.

Crafstmen made their micromosaic jewelry similar to larger pieces. They glued small sections of fine rods of colored glass into patterns or pictures within a frame of hardstone or colored glass. They then set the whole piece in an outer gold or silver frame that gave added protection to the fragile center.

Besides ancient ruins, subjects included flowers, such as delicately shaded roses, lilies, violets and carnations which were symbols of love and friendship in Victorian times. Birds and insects were also popular. Many micromosaics portray the dove—a common symbol of purity and peace.

As the 19th century came to an end and more and more middle class tourists visited Italy, jewelers began to cut corners with their micromosaic pieces. They began using larger pieces of glass and shoddy workmanship in order to keep up with the demand for less expensive pieces. Many of the pieces available today come from the 1890s to the 1920s.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yippy, Hi, O

QUESTION: I moved to New Mexico about a year ago. Items from the Old West fill many of the antique shops, and I often see things like spurs and branding irons at flea markets. I’d love to start a collection of cowboy memorabilia, but I don’t have a clue as to where to begin.  How should I go about starting my collection.

ANSWER: As with any antique or collectible, a collection begins with one item. Most people don’t know they’re beginning a collection—it just happens. At first, your collection will grow randomly as you discover items here and there that attract your interest. First and foremost, that’s the key to starting a collection—collect what you like and can afford. But collecting cowboy memorabilia can be tricky.

Western relics from the frontier up to the time of the early rodeos hold a fascination for many collectors. The Old West came to an end around 1900. In the time after the Civil War, the West exploded with growth as hundreds of soldiers, drawn to the promise of a new start, traveled along the great trails leading to fields of gold and rich farming land. Many of them became cowboys.

Eventually, those who migrated to the West needed tools and gadgets to make their lives more comfortable. And cowboys needed equipment to help them in their work. Enough tools, gadgets, and conveniences had been invented or adapted to settlers respite from constant labor. Tools wore out and had to be replaced by better models.

Now these items are trendy collectibles for those with an interest in Western Americana. Included are spurs, branding irons, saddles, ropes, chaps, kitchenware, furniture, horse tack, cowboy hats and anything used on a ranch.

You don't want items that have been repaired. New stirrup leathers, for example, and cobbled-up, relaced or relined things are all negatives. Instead of polished spurs, look for that nice old patina.

Don't overdo and try to make an antique saddle like new. Some people think they do good jobs but, instead of springing for real sheepskin lining, they use synthetic, or they don't even attempt to match the saddle color, decoration or leather thickness.

Use common sense when shopping for cowboy items. A glaring repair is one that wasn't done well. You shouldn't see a well-done repair. It's that simple. The more invisible the repair, the better the job, which helps the piece hold its value. Find somebody who actually repairs old  saddles and riding gear. Many do a great job. Unfortunately, it may not be your shoemaker.

Cowboy gear has been highly influenced by Spanish riding gear since Spain controlled what’s now the Southwest and California. While the average working cowboy can’t afford to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on his equipment, ranch owners and western riding afficionados can. Horse shows and rodeos all over the U.S. and Canada feature western riding events. The fancier the gear, the better.

Antique spurs come in all styles, from extremely ornate ones made of silver to going for over $2,000 a pair to plainer ones selling for just over $200.  Chaps aren’t as pricey, although a pair from 1900 can sell for over $800. Most people don’t realize how dangerous the work of a cowboy was and still is. Most wore leather cuffs to protect their forearms from rope burns. Simply tooled or leather ones go for around $100 while beautifully hand-tooled ones can sell as high as $850 and a early pair of studded cuffs can reach as high as $1,150.

Saddles are a cowboy’s stock in trade, his most prized possession. An early one from J.S. Collins & Company of Cheyenne, Wyoming, dating from before 1886, sells for $4,000 while an unmarked saddle sells for only $250. As with all antiques and collectibles, provenance means a lot.  Saddlebags are a necessary accessory for cowboys. Ones in good condition start at around $160 and climb to over $600.

Western horse tack includes bits and headstalls. Fancy bits are usually made of silver. Headstalls, or the set of straps that fit over a horse’s head, usually include bits attached to them. Prices range from around $160 to over $800 while bits alone can sell for as low as $95 to well over $1,200.

So you see, collecting cowboy memorabilia isn’t cheap. To create a good collection, you’ll have to spend a lot of money. Of course, living in New Mexico helps. Unlike collectors in other parts of the country, you’re in a location with a potential inventory of lots of items. But don’t hesitate to look online. However, because cowboy collectibles are pricey for the most part, there are a lot of fakes out there just waiting for unknowing novice collectors.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Question of Value

QUESTION: I recently purchased a beautiful old armchair from a consignment shop. It looks a lot like a Philadelphia Chippendale chair but I can’t be sure. Also, how do I determine the value? Can you help me?

ANSWER: This is a common question. Since the Antiques Roadshow first appeared on the air on PBS, people have been obsessed with knowing the value of their belongings. In fact, that’s the first question most people ask, not what is it or how old is it?

In the case of this chair, knowing what it is and how old it is makes all the difference in its value. Looking closely, you’ll notice that the carving on the knees of the chair is rather shallow. That tells you that this chair was made in a factory and not by hand in a cabinetmaker’s workshop the way authentic 18th-century Chippendale chairs would have been made. Also, the wood is dark-stained to look like mahogany. In Colonial times, cabinetmakers would have used real mahogany wood and then given it several coats of varnish to bring out the smooth surface shine.

This chair is most likely from the early part of the 20th century and not even 100 years old, so technically it isn’t an antique. As a used pieced of furniture, its value will depend on what the buyer wants to pay for it.

While the answer to the question of value may seem simple, in fact, it’s far from it. What type of value–retail value, insurance replacement value, fair-market value, auction value, or cash value? In the end, each of these values will be a different amount. Other factors determining value are age and condition. So where to begin.

Let’s start with retail value. This is the price for which an antiques dealer expects to sell an item after marking it up from the price the dealer paid for it in order to make a profit. This amount can be anywhere from 20 to100 percent of the dealer’s purchase price.

The amount of money it would take to replace an item from a antiques shop or online if it were lost, stolen, or damaged is called the insurance replacement value.

The price that an item would sell for on the open market between a willing buyer and a willing seller is known as the fair-market value. This is also the value that’s used when an item is donated to a charity or is part of someone’s estate.

And when someone puts an item up for auction, the price that an appraiser feels the item should bring at auction, based on comparison of like items and recent other auction sales, is known as the auction value, but has nothing do with the actual value of the item.

However, being told something is worth a specific value is meaningless if the appraiser doing the appraisal has no knowledge of the item itself or the market for it. And auction prices, such as those eBay are not an indicator of true "worth," since many of these sales prices are inflated many times over in the heat of bidding up an item. And a verbal appraisal is worth nothing without a written appraisal to back it up, especially in the case of settling an estate. Only a written appraisal is legally binding in case of damage or loss.

To learn more about how to value your antiques and collectibles, read my article, What’s It Worth?,” in The Antiques Almanac

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An American Grocery Tradition

QUESTION: I live in a small apartment and don’t have the room or means to collect a lot of antiques, especially furniture. But recently I became fascinated with the little tins that contained spices and other things that used to be sold in supermarkets. I’ve acquired some, like those from A&P and National. While I’ve heard of some of these brands, I’ve never seen or heard of the National brand. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: The use of little tins to hold spices goes back to the late 19th century. McCormick spices are widely known as a national brand, but each market and eventually supermarket had its own store brands, as just about all do today. So first let’s look at how these store brands got started.

It all began back in 1859 when John Huntingdon Hartford founded the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, commonly known as A&P. He peddled coffees and teas out of gold and vermillion horse-drawn wagons and tiny, yet opulent, Oriental-themed retail shops before gradually adding a few kitchen staples like flour, sugar, baking powder and spices to its product mix. He packaged the items he sold with the name of his company, A&P.

Clarence Saunder started the modern self-service supermarket concept in 1916 with his Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly brand. One of the earliest tea companies to break from tradition and cash in on this concept was Danish immigrant George S. Rasmussen's National Tea Company, founded in 1899. Others like Jewel Tea followed. In the beginning, each sold their own brand of goods, but as the small stores grew into supermarkets, each needed to fill their shelves, so they began selling private brands as well.

Early in its history, Chicago-based National built itself into an upper Midwest chain supermarket powerhouse across Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota by hitching its future on adopting Saunder's novel supermarket concept. By the end of World War II, National had grown into America's sixth largest grocery chain, comprising 880 small, neighborhood supermarkets sprinkled across Iowa, the Dakotas, Michigan and Indiana, but primarily concentrated around principal strongholds in Chicago, Rockford, Illinois, Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

But following founder Rasmussen's [936 death during the Great Depression, National lost its direction and floundered. Chicago millionaire printer John F. Cunco, who controlled a 26 percent block of stock in what he publicly noted was the worst chain-store property in the country, forced a March 1945 reorganization of the company's management to shake up the laggard, star-crossed chain. Cunco installed fifth-grade dropout-turned-grocery-whiz Harley V. McNamara as National's executive vice-president and Robert V. Rasmussen, son of the founder, as president. In 1947 McNamara was promoted to president, with Rasmussen becoming chairman.

Within a decade of his 1945 appointment at National, McNamara built the industry also-ran into the nation's fifth largest supermarket chain and 10th largest retailer, boosting sales from $107 million to $520 million and profits from $913,000 to $6.5 million by increasing per-store volume some 500 percent. He did this by closing its low-volume, low-profit traditional city neighborhood stores  in favor of the postwar shift to larger, modern stand-alone and shopping center supermarkets surrounded by acres of free parking.

But by far the biggest single reason for National's explosive growth during the postwar boom was McNamara's strategy of buying instant market saturation in new geographic areas though the acquisition of local chains in major markets. Still the chain continued to sell its National store brand and placed its items in these acquired stores. Sound familiar?

Eventually, the economy and over-expansion caught up to National while other, newer chains created competition it just couldn’t match. Today, even the trendiest supermarkets offer their own brand of many of the products they sell. And as supermarket chains get bought and sold, the store brands of the survivors endure. It’s an American tradition.