Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Giving New Life Through Restoration

QUESTION: For years I also collected antiquities. Now I have a particular passion of writing boxes or old English boxes. I enjoy to restore by myself. I beg to ask for an opinion. I attach here two photos. On the lid, at the corners, something is missing! Do you think the angles were made of brass? Or in wood ... or mother of pearl? I doubt it because the thickness is a lot (about 3 mm.) Then I had never seen the brass corners that did not go vertically.

ANSWER: The corners on your box would have been brass, so if you can find someone to make these for you, they should be easy to replace. Be sure to glue them with a strong glue. Box makers usually used brass on the corners of better boxes to protect them while traveling. Victorians took writing and other types of boxes along on long trips so that they could communicate to their friends and family back home. It’s not unusual to find boxes from this time period in poor condition. Restoring them is not as difficult as doing furniture but can be challenging.

Antique boxes acted as portable storage workhorses for past generations. They served a variety of purposes from document boxes in which to keep valuable papers to writing boxes for correspondence to dressing boxes for grooming while traveling to tea caddies for storing precious tea. Victorians, in particular, loved boxes and people from all classes used them.

Unfortunately, people handled boxes a lot, so most antique ones aren’t in the greatest shape. Some boxes may have sat on a table in front of a window in the sunlight and became faded over time while others suffered from neglect.

A good example is an Indian sadeli mosaic-covered writing box that outlived its usefulness. Someone decided that instead of tossing it out, they would give it to their children to play with. The children drew all over the beautiful mosaic with crayons and someone did a bad job of pasting a piece of chartreuse felt over the writing surface on the inside. Needless to say, this restoration wasn’t a walk in the park.

Unlike antique furniture made before 1830, many antique boxes will benefit greatly with even modest restoration. And since they’re not large, it doesn’t take a lot of materials or time to restore them.

Antique boxes are valuable because they’re antique and looking old isn’t bad. And while restoring a box may make it look better, it may reduce its historical value. Boxes from the 18th century should only be restored by a professional restoration expert. In most cases, they need to be conserved, that is the deterioration of the box should be halted. Restoration is a more radical solution and often includes refinishing the wood and replacing metal parts. So the question to be asked is whether the box is in bad enough shape to render it less valuable than its being restored?

While restoration usually begins with reviving the wood of the box’s body, it also takes in exterior decorations made of ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl. These materials are all fragile and should be checked for cracks, abrasions, and chips. Metal ornamentation may be missing, dented or creased, or it may just need polishing. Veneers and inlay are much more difficult to repair and may require professional assistance.

Antique boxes also contain small and sometimes specialized hinges and locks that must also be examined for repair, restoration, or replacement. Finding replacements can be a real challenge since many of these may have been made for a particular box.

But minor conservation can do wonders for an antique box. First, tighten any loose screws and gently tap in any loose nails. Repair loose joints with wood glue. Finally, clean the box with a soft lint-free cloth dampened with Murphy’s Oil Soap solution. Do a small area at a time and use another lint-free cloth to dry it. After letting the box dry thoroughly for 24 hours, give it two coats of Minwax past wax to protect the exterior. Follow the directions on the can.

Dust the interior of the box with a soft shaving brush. If the wood is bare, as with some inner areas of the box, switch to a solvent-based cleaner. Use a toothbrush or toothpick to clean out any crevices. If this has markedly improved the box’s appearance then it may be a good time to stop.

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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Give Me Your Tired and Your Poor, Yearning to be Free

QUESTION: My mother collected Statue of Liberty memorabilia for a long time. She began when she was only a teenager with a little statue she bought on a class trip to New York. Seeing Lady Liberty up close inspired her to buy the statue. After that, she couldn’t get enough of her.  Her collection began with canceled stamps showing the Statue of Liberty which she tore off of envelopes. She added a postcard of the statue that a friend sent to her. Over the years, she amassed a collection of over 100 items, all depicting the Statue of Liberty.  My mother is gone now, but her collection lives on. I’d really like to know more about these collectibles and the Statue of Liberty, itself. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Statue of Liberty memorabilia is probably one of the more popular collecting categories. While some items are worth just a few dollars, others can reach four figures.

Although the French Government conceived the Statue of Liberty as a symbolic gesture, no one had any idea at the time just how important a symbol she would become. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, her creator, envisioned her as a monument to the mutual love of the French and Americans for liberty, and as propaganda against the then conservative leaders of the French government. It was thought that building a huge monument for the United States would forever link that powerful democratic country, with France, and cement that country's new Third Republic. But not everyone shared Bartholdi's vision.

Fundraising, especially in the United States, proved difficult. The Statue of Liberty Committee had planned to unveil that the statue would be unveiled in 1876 for the Centennial of American Independence. But sluggish fundraising delayed the gift for at least 10 years. This resulted in a variety of wonderful memorabilia. Most souvenirs sold for pennies to dollars each to raise money to complete the big statue and bring her to America. The French, on the other hand,  raised money to complete the building of the statue piece by piece while the Americans raised  funds to complete the gigantic base. By 1884, The French had completed Miss Liberty an d were ready to ship her. But the American Committee was short the $100,000 needed to complete her pedestal. To raise additional monies, the Committee commissioned more than 100,000 models which it sold by subscription, and at Macy's and other department stores. Each $1 purchase added to the Liberty coffers. It sold some 12-inch models for $5. Today, the small metal models sell for $250 to $300 and the large ones from $500 to $1,000.

Meanwhile, the French disassembled the statue into over 300 pieces and shipped it in more than 200 wooden crates. The arm bearing the torch filled 21 boxes alone. On June 17, 1886, she arrived. Workers placed the statue on the immense supporting monument designed by Richard Morris Hunt. On Oct. 28, 1886, the Committee officially installed and dedicated the Statue of Liberty. There was a huge inaugural parade and President Grover Cleveland delivered a dedication address. Collectors covet the programs, tickets, and invitations from this gala occasion.
During the earliest Liberty years, many souvenirs appeared. During the 10 years before Liberty arrived, many publishers printed lithographs, including early pieces of sheet music. There are stereopticon photos from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia of Liberty’s right arm, which appeared at the fair, showing visitors standing on her torch. These souvenirs now sell for $125. Visitors to the fair could purchase large, finely detailed bronze medals, crafted in Paris.

In 1878, Liberty had no body, but when Europeans gathered in Paris for the 1878 Expeditions, the head had been completed and was displayed on the banks of the Seine. Visitors filled her crown and for several francs, could take home a lovely 4-inch Liberty bust, a few of which found their way to America and today sell for upwards of $500. Other French souvenirs included tasseled, silks and ribbons made for the fair by B.B. Tilt & Son in Paterson, New Jersey.

For a substantial contribution to aid French fundraising, up to 100 zinc statuettes went on sale, including a small edition, finely detailed statuette in terra cotta, hand-finished by Bartholdi, himself. During the 1986 Liberty Centennial, several of these reached more than $100,000 at auction. In the United States, a New Jersey furniture maker named Follmer, cast a few detailed zinc statuettes carrying 1883 and 1885 patent dates. These are quite rare, much more so than the American Committee Models. Follmer's statuettes feature the original Hunt pedestal design that the Committee ultimately abandoned for the one actually under Liberty's feet. Today, these statues sell for over $5,000.

The 20th century witnessed many more souvenirs—some as works of art, some as advertising, some as satirical commentaries, some as cheap souvenirs for the hordes of tourists who visited her. Practically everything had the image of Miss Liberty reproduced on it, including clocks, lamps, statuettes, compacts, cigarette cases and boxes, cookie tins, pitchers, spoons, china and even trade cards satirizing Liberty in order to sell a product. Though some of objects were beautifully done, others appear cheap with muddied facial features and poor workmanship. But even the cheap ones are collectible.

During the Liberty Centennial in 1986, there was a rush of interest in Liberty collecting. At that time, there were thousands of souvenirs and "limited editions" sold, including watches, medals, limited-edition plates, rugs, cookie jars, mugs, and jewelry.

Most collectors agree that, although items are becoming more scarce, there are still plenty of them out there. Statue of Liberty items usually appear at flea markets. Since many aren’t that large, collectors often find them in glass cases with other small items.

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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ways to Say I Love You

QUESTION: I’ve loved Valentine’s Day ever since I was in the first grade and my new best friend gave me a valentine card at our class’s party. Every year I would go out of my way to give really different cards. I became so inspired that I began looking for valentines all year round. I’ve amassed quite a collection of old valentine cards, but I really have no idea how the tradition of giving valentine greetings began. Can you help me put this in perspective?

ANSWER: Sending valentine greetings actually began during Roman times. Legend says that Valentinus, a Roman priest who encouraged young couples to many, sent the first valentine in 270 A.D.  Unfortunately , the reigning Emperor, Claudius II, disapproved of Christianity, and of marriage, in general. It was the Emperor's belief that married soldiers would soon forget that their primary allegiance should be to their Emperor, rather than to their wives.

The Emperor ordered Valentinus beheaded for disregarding his orders to cease his actions. Legend also says Valentinus befriended the blind daughter of the jailer, and apparently restoring her sight. In turn, the young woman brought food and delivered messages to him during his incarceration. On February 14, the eve of his execution, he wrote her a note of appreciation, signing it "From your Valentine."

A forerunner of the valentine greeting began in the 16th century with religious mementos of the Sacred Heart created in convents in France, Germany and Holland. Carefully crafted on parchment or vellum, the designs emulating the hand-tatted lace of the period.

The custom of Valentine's Day as an occasion developed gradually as the techniques of making paper advanced.  In 1834, the English made improvements to lace paper, originally  made in Germany and Austria in the early 19th century. The openwork, cameo-embossed lace paper allowed English publishers to publish elegant love letters, romantic stationery and valentines for an increasing number of customers.

These were miniature works of art which incorporated the use of ribbons and scraps, pearls and Dresden die-cuts. Some were movable or perfumed, while others had tiny mirrors attached to them to reflect the image of the beloved.

People made most early American valentines by hand. The influence of the immigrant German cultures resulted in folk-art paper items known as scherenschnitte, meaning paper cutting, and fraktur, or paper designs incorporating German calligraphy and imagery.

By the early 20th century, several publishers of lithographs and wood engravings began making  valentines in New York City. But it was Esther Howland who many consider the mother of the American valentine.

The Howland family operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts. As a student at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Class of 1847, she had been exposed to annual Valentine's Day festivities, which were later banned by the college for being too frivolous.

After graduation, Howland received an elaborate English valentine from one of her father's business associates. She convinced her father to order lace paper and other sup-plies from England and New York City. With these she made a dozen samples, which her brother added to his inventory for his next sales trip. When her brother returned with more than $5,000 in advance sales, she established a cottage industry where ladies would have materials and samples delivered and picked up at their homes, thus allowing them to mass-produce valentines.

While Esther Howland was not the first to create valentines in America, she did popularize the lace valentine, enabling her to earn $100.000 a year. In 1881, she sold her valentine business to an associate, George Whitney, whose company patterned many of their cards on the Howland model.

Another Victorian passion was the postcard. Publishers produced popular designs in huge quantities, since Valentine's Day was a big card-sending holiday at the time. But despite the availability of a wide variety of valentine cards, the demand for beautiful and unusual images has driven up the price for collectors. Ordinary postcard valentines can sell for $5 or less, but quality valentine postcards tend to sell for $8 to $10 each.

Production of valentine postcards ceased by World War I. It wasn’t until the 1930s that folded cards were became popular. The 1960s produced cards with red satin hearts, sachet centers, and simulated jewels and lace.

Today, Valentine's Day is the second largest holiday for giving a greeting card, with approximately 180 million cards exchanged. About 30 percent of all modern valentines are for meant for romantic love relationships. Valentinus would be proud.

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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.

Monday, February 5, 2018

To Restore or Not—That is the Question

QUESTION:  Hi, my father, who is 93, has a chest his grandfather brought over from Sweden. I'm pretty sure its a Biedermeier. It has some wood damage, and the desk flap needs repair,. If we have it repaired, will it lessen the value? I have always loved it and don't have plans to sell it, but don't want to take away from its worth either. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Yes, definitely get your Biedermeier secretary restored. For the most part, it’s in excellent condition. Restoring it will only increase its value. Unlike what experts say about antiques produced before 1830, those made after that can often benefit from restoration. In this case, just make sure you use the best restorer you can find. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your secretary is worth a lot of money and will appreciate even more. This is because a lot of Biedermeier pieces got damaged from dampness and such when the style went out of favor. Many sat in barns for years until the veneer literally fell off of them. So there aren’t very pieces that have survived.

So why are Biedermeier pieces so valuable? Next to the Bauhaus, the Biedermeier style movement had perhaps the most influence on modern styles to come. This Neoclassic style  originated in Germany in the early 19th century and played a major role in furniture design. It spread throughout Europe from 1815 to 1848.

The style’s name derived from Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kussmaul, who depicted the typical bourgeois of the period under the name "Gottfried Biedermeier"—from "Gott" meaning "God," fried" meaning "peace," "Bieder" meaning "commonplace," and meier" meaning "steward"—in their Fliegende Blatter, a Viennese journal of the day. However, people didn’t call it Biedermeier until 1886, when Georg Hirth wrote a book about 19th-century interior design, and used the word "Biedermeier" to describe domestic German furniture of the 1820s and 1830s.

Biedermeier furniture suited the modest size and unostentatious needs of comfortable bourgeois houses. And the secretary was the most popular piece.

The less severe appearance of Biedermeier furniture led to a less formal arrangement of rooms as a whole. Flowers, screens, worktables and knick-knacks of all sorts helped to give a sense of family life. The bourgeoisie began to form a personal style, thus creating what’s now known as interior design, making Biedermeier one of the first design movements to reflect it.

People arranged suites of furniture in the corners of rooms. They created areas for eating, chatting, reading, and doing embroidery. Each had a sofa, table and chairs, and some sort of storage cabinet. Biedermeier comfort emphasized family life and private activities, especially letter writing—giving prominence to secretary desks. These featured a central niche, a mirror, and secret drawers.

Most Biedermeier furniture is extremely geometric in appearance. As the popularity of the style grew, some pieces took on new roles—the table became the family table, around which family members could site  for evening activities. Or table tops could be placed against the wall in a vertical position. A portable piano had a drawer for sewing things, while the upper drawer of a chest of drawers might be converted into a writing desk.

Prior to 1830, mahogany appeared in Viennese furniture and gradually replaced walnut. The adoption of this imported wood, which was often given a light finish, caused some craftsmen to apply matching stains and finishes to pieces made in walnut, pear wood, and Hungarian "watered" ash.

Attention to economy meant that local timber was mostly used, especially walnut veneers over a soft wood frame. Inlay served as the main decorative element, featuring the patterned graining of walnut and often reduced to a light-colored border. Sometimes, craftsmen used black poplar or bird's eye maple and colored woods such as cherry and pear became popular.

Cabinetmakers decorated their furniture with black or gold paint, and often employed less expensive stamped brass wreaths and festoons rather than bronze for decorative effect and gilded wooden stars instead of the elaborate metal ornaments of the Empire style. They designed furniture to be seen from the front and concentrated most of the decoration there.

With pieces of furniture as valuable as Biedermeier ones, it’s important to get them appraised by a certified antiques appraiser who specializes in European furniture. While getting an appraisal may appear costly, the cost is well worth it if the piece is damaged or sold. It’s also important to research former owners of the piece to create a provenance.

 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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," coming this week.