Treasures: Nothing Mysterious About Pair Vases; They Turn Out to be ‘Cheapwares’

This covered urn was made in England circa 1915. It’s monetary value is in the $250-$300 range.

This covered urn was made in England circa 1915. It’s monetary value is in the $250-$300 range.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I inherited this pair of what I think are vases, but I do not know for sure what they are. I have searched a few antique sites and have been unable to find anything like them.

Can you provide any information as to origin and value? I have included a photograph of the mark.

Kind regards,

S. C.

Dear S. C.:

We need to apologize up front. The name we are going to give this pair of covered urns or mantel ornaments may sound more than a bit judgmental, but it is the name that is often given to pieces such as these.

But before we get to that, we want to answer S. C.’s specific questions. The mark on the bottom is blurry, but it tells the whole story.

It gives us information that would be extremely difficult to discover online and a trip to the good old-fashioned library is the only way to accomplish unraveling the facts.

The mark is of a crown inside a wreath surmounted by a lion with the initials “H J” on either side of the bottom of the wreath with the designation “England” below that.

This last word answers many of S. C.’s queries — it tells us that the piece was made in the United Kingdom (England) sometime after 1891 — but probably before the end of World War I.

The rest of the mark leads to the name of the manufacturer, which was A. G. Harley Jones — and if S. G. Googles that name, she would find a picture of urns remarkably similar to hers.

When this name is known, the rest of the story is easy to find. A quick look at Geoffrey A. Godden’s Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks reveals that this company went into business in 1907 and ceased operation in 1934.

They operated the “Royal Vienna Art Pottery” works in Fenton, Staffordshire and made earthenware’s and some china.

The name chosen for this operation was also that of a firm associated with fine porcelain wares made in the capital of the Austro Hungarian Empire. But the piece made by A. G. Hanley Jones are knockoffs of the originals and inexpensive ones at that.

Yes, we have now come to the judgmental part we spoke about earlier. Items such as these are often called “cheapwares” by the British because they were turned out in large numbers using shoddy materials and manufacturing techniques.

In this case the images on the vases are transfer printed and the worker who applied the prints did a relatively poor job (we see seams and voids).

The colors are not well applied and the blue and green are not nearly as attractive as they would have been on more expensive wares.

Real “Royal Vienna” wares might have had a place on the mantel of the rich, but the two covered urns in today’s question were intended for the homes and mantels of more ordinary people.

From a distance they might fool the eye, but up close, they tell what they are in an instant. They are wonderful heirlooms, but their monetary value is in the $250 to $300 range.

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Notch market: “The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art”

Freeland Tanner: Celebration, 2006, reclaimed wood and mirror

Freeland Tanner: Celebration, 2006, reclaimed wood and mirror

Folk art often tends to have anonymous creators, unlike the fine arts, where artists can become household names. But when it comes to tramp art, a particular woodworking tradition that might reasonably sound like it was created by transients — complete with a mental image of a boxcar hobo whittling away at a scrap of wood — anonymity has been something of a stigma, reinforcing the notion that tramp art is a crude art form. But the term “tramp art” is misleading. The name refers to a style of making art, not to the people who made it.

The origin of the moniker can be traced to a specific article on the subject — and one that also happened to put tramp art on the map. The name was first applied in Frances Lichten’s 1959 piece “ ‘Tramp Work’: Penknife Plus Cigar Boxes” for Pennsylvania Folklife magazine. Museum of International Folk Art curator Laura Addison calls Lichten’s article seminal, as it was the first to identify tramp art’s defining characteristics: the use of recycled wood primarily obtained from crates and cigar boxes, specific notching and layering techniques, and utilitarian designs such as storage boxes, picture frames, wall pockets, and clock housings. These objects range from simple and rustic to intricate and ornate. Addison and the museum have assembled the first major tramp art exhibition in the U.S. in more than 40 years, and the majority of works on view are a marvel of craftsmanship and inventiveness. No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art opens at the Museum of International Folk Art on Sunday, March 12, and is also the title of a new book edited by Addison, out from Museum of New Mexico Press.

Much of the scholarship behind the exhibition had the purpose of identifying its makers and tracing the history of an art form that’s still practiced today. “There’s so much that’s misunderstood about tramp art that I wanted this project — the exhibition and the book — to wipe the slate clean and start again, looking at what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know, et cetera,” Addison told Pasatiempo. “This applies to who made it, most pointedly — that is, not tramps, for the most part. That narrative about itinerants making these objects in railcars makes for a great story, but it is, by and large, not accurate.”

Yet there are examples of itinerant art in No Idle Hands. One work on display is a wall pocket made by a drifter named Johnny Clay in the 1920s. Still, most tramp art was produced by members of the working class. “They also tended to be either immigrants primarily from Northern and Eastern Europe, or they were born in the U.S.,” Addison said. “The areas that seem to have the highest concentrations of tramp art are Pennsylvania, New York State, Illinois, and Wisconsin. There’s a lot in Wisconsin.” In her book, Addison points to numerous examples of tramp art from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe. Fretwork, chip-carving, and other techniques from European woodworking practices influenced the style. “The chapters in the book map out a historiography of tramp art and also locate the nuances and uncertainties about the art form,” she said. “Where possible, I included work by makers whose names we know, in order to then build a case for who actually made tramp art, despite what the name suggests. Most artisans will remain unknown to us forever — few tramp art makers signed their works.”

Tramp art is typically made using flat pieces of wood, built up in progressively smaller layers to add dimension. The edges are carved in V-shaped notches. Some of the examples on display retain some recognizable elements from the cigar boxes they were made from, such as stamps and labels. These identifiers, in turn, help narrow down undated and unsigned pieces to a time frame. But works were often completely transformed and no longer resembled the objects from which the materials were originally taken. The exhibition includes, for instance, a late-19th- or early-20th-century gold-painted multi-compartment pedestal box that, with its abstract and geometric shape, appears more sculptural than utilitarian.

The majority of the objects are made for domestic use. The exhibit has a frame for a thermometer made by Alfred Osterling in 1899; a sewing box from 1896 with a built-in pincushion that mounts to a table by way of a hand-carved wooden clamp; a circa-midcentury full-sized desk with built-in electric lamps, and an elaborate mantle clock made in Canada in 1935 that stands over three feet high and bears the image of King George V. Some of the more embellished works, like the King George clock, are baroque, lavish in their ornamentation. The clock is decorated with animal figurines that symbolize the territories of the British Empire, according to Addison, who writes descriptively of its carved Tudor roses and maple leaves and the oval portrait of the king surrounded by relief carvings of the Union Jack.

The museum also managed to obtain an early-20th-century wall-hung dressing cabinet by artist John Zadzora; it is nearly identical to a piece by him that once belonged to Lichten, who rescued it from a pile of kindling at a Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse. Lichten marveled at its making, and it was the piece that — with such common iconographic tramp-art elements as hearts and birds — launched her interest in the art form. Lichten related this iconography to the idea of repentance. She believed that Zadzora made the piece while in jail for failing to support his wife, but according to Addison, who spoke with his family, he was married long after he was in jail.

Addison writes that hearts, birds, and other visual motifs were common in the works of Pennsylvania Germans, one of whom was an immigrant named John Scholl, who settled in Germania, Pennsylvania, in the 1850s. He had a saying — “Idleness is an unwanted stranger,” akin to the biblical proverb “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” — from which Addison derived her exhibit title.

An understanding of tramp art as a distinctive form with recognizable attributes developed over time. But it’s an art that, according to Addison, muddies the waters about how it should be defined. “Is it folk art?” she asked. “Is it vernacular art? Is it a hobby, a popular art form, a traditional art? Is it all of the above or none of the above? Sometimes these make for interesting avenues to pursue, but other times, it gets us stuck in an endless circle that distracts from some of the more interesting questions, like how did tramp art relate to the economics of the turn of the 20th century? What can it tell us about an Everyman’s art form in the modern era? What values from the Victorian era did it project?”

To salvage its legitimacy, tramp art had to be rescued from the malignancy of its detractors. It has been reviled since Lichten wrote about it in the late 1950s. Critics considered it ugly, gaudy, and ostentatious. Addison cited numerous examples of the harsh criticisms of the form. Tramp art is “the ugly duckling of folk art,” writes Bill Carmichael, author of Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques, and Odd Hobbies (1971). And Michael Cornish, co-author with Clifford Wallach of Tramp Art, One Notch at a Time (1998), writes, “Some people consider tramp art one of the homeliest dust-gatherers that the human mind and hand have concocted.” But Addison points out that critics’ deep curiosity about the art form’s origins and its mostly unknown makers has led to revelations that contradict its relegation to the art world fringe, where it has been incorrectly associated with prison art — as Lichten did with Zadzora’s work — or lumped in with toothpick and Popsicle-stick sculptures, along with similarly resourceful but low-tech crafts. “Tramps, hobos, prisoners, sailors, misfits, and eccentrics — all were unnamed and unrecognized,” she writes, “identifiable only for their shared exclusion from respectable, mainstream society. The era of tramp artisanry coincided with the belief that economic failure was irreversibly tied to moral failure.”

We now know, thanks to scholars like Cornish, Wallach, author and appraiser Helaine Fendelman, and Addison — whose research must now be considered among them — that tramp art was mostly made by people who held steady employment, members of society who would not necessarily be considered outsiders. “In this show, for example, there is someone who worked as a chauffeur,” Addison said. “There are people who worked in mills. There are people who were carpenters. Freeland Tanner and his wife Sabrina are landscape designers. A lot of his work references botanicals.” Like Lichten, Tanner, a Napa-based contemporary tramp art maker, also developed an interest in the art form after being taken by an object he encountered by happenstance. In Tanner’s case, it was a small picture frame he found while perusing a shop in the Pacific Northwest. “That’s what got me going,” he told Pasatiempo. “So I started searching for these pieces. The ones that I make are things that I hope I could find in a shop but know I never could.” Tanner’s Celebration is included in the show. It’s a symmetrical altar, a painstakingly detailed show-stopper that has the appearance of woven basketry. It has a panel that folds down to reveal interior compartments. The top is inset with a circular mirror, and the work pays homage to tradition by including the common tramp art motifs of hearts and birds, not to mention a mind-boggling series of notches that cover the entire form.

“I’m influenced by all the periods in the antique world, if you will,” Tanner said. “I enjoy the journey through all that, and mixing different periods and eras and ideas. I like to take ideas from unexpected areas and employ them in some of the work.” As a child, Tanner, who was raised by his mother and grandmother, watched his grandmother while she sat in her rocking chair whittling and carving, but he didn’t start doing woodwork in earnest until later in life. As a teenager and young adult, he worked for a maker of leather goods. He also worked on antique cars and did welding and metalwork as well as auto painting. But from his grandmother he learned about facet work and laminating and other woodworking techniques. “I think she was trying to tell me about what tramp art is,” he said. “She grew up before there was electricity and saw the whole world evolve.” Addison writes that Tanner’s work is a hybrid of tramp art and other aesthetic styles, including the Baroque and Rococo. Some of Tanner’s work was also influenced by Spanish colonial tinwork from New Mexico, which he encountered in the Larry Frank collection of devotional objects at the Palace of the Governors. “I have such a great reverence for this tinwork that I wanted to use it to take this so-called tramp art in a different direction. It’s kind of like one art form impersonating another, in a way. I believe that’s where my focus is going with my woodwork. Maybe I’ll even get into the tin.”

Tanner is one of only a few contemporary tramp art makers working in the U.S. today. Others whose works are included in the exhibit are James Holmes, George Hightower, and Angie Dow. All these artists are self-taught, and all came to tramp art in a similar fashion, having first discovered examples that piqued their curiosity on the dusty shelves of antique shops or in public and private collections. They learned the craft by imitation, attempting to recreate tramp art’s stylistic conventions. After all, tramp art is, as Addison writes, citing a term used by basket maker John E. McGuire, a “silent teacher.”

View the original article online.


Don Quixote Lamp is Nice, but Repurposed

This lamp was once a vase/ewer, but it was converted.

This lamp was once a vase/ewer, but it was converted.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and I am sending you photographs of a lamp that once belonged to my late parents. I have also enclosed a photograph of the mark. I would like to know where it came from and its value.

Thank you,


Dear B.S.:

This is truly an international query. The letter comes from South Africa, the image on the lamp is based on Spanish fiction and the piece itself was made in Bohemia (once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia, and now the Czech Republic).

The image on the piece is that of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the title character in the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Part one of the novel was first published in 1605 and part two in 1615. It is one of the most influential works of fiction in Western literature, and Schopenhauer called it one of the four greatest novels ever written.

On the object belonging to B.S. we see the image of Don Quixote mounted on his nag, “Rocinante.” He is holding a lance and dressed in an old suit of armor. Looking at the piece, we feel the image may have been created using sgraffito, or the incising of a design into clay with a sharp instrument.

The oval mark has the place name “Czechoslovakia” on it, which did not formally exist until 1918. The firm that made it was the Amphora Porcelain Works, located in the Turn-Teplitz area of Bohemia (modern-day Trnovany, Czech Republic).

The manufacturer marked their wares “Amphora,” but the piece was made in the factory owned by Riessner, Stellmacher and Kessel, which was founded in 1892 and remained in business until 1945. They are known for their art nouveau and art deco style wares. Sometimes there is a blending of the two.

But the ewer-shaped vessel in today’s question has an almost pebbled surface and a very modern feel that pushes past art deco and into a later expression sometimes called “art moderne.” Today’s collectors often call this sort of design midcentury modern, and it can be very popular with enthusiasts.

This piece, which was made sometime in the late 1920s or early ’30s, started out life as a vase or ewer, and it appears that someone punched a hole in the side and turned it into a lamp base. This is not an unusual occurrence, and it is commonplace to find repurposed vases and ewers turned into lamps.

Unfortunately, collectors do not care for this practice and it can be seen as a defacement that affects the value of the object in a very negative manner. This lamp has another strike going against it because those wanting to purchase lamps often want them to be in pairs and singles are sometimes frowned upon.

This is still a very nice piece with modern overtones and it should be valued for insurance purposes in the $250 to $350 range if it is larger than 12 inches tall.

View the original article here.

Treasures: Collectors Love Folk Design of Pie Safes

This so-called pie safe is taller and made later than most,

This so-called pie safe is taller and made later than most.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I inherited this pie safe from my father, and I believe the tins were hand-punched because I remember my father telling me how it was done. I would like to know its value for resale because it does not fit into my new home.

Thank you,


Dear A.H.:

Most people call a piece of furniture such as this one a “pie safe,” but such pieces do have other name, such as pie chest, pie cupboard, kitchen safe or even meat safe. These were common items in many American homes, primarily in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century before refrigeration became commonplace.

Pie safes were standard equipment in many kitchens. They were kept away from the stove — the hottest place in the room — and placed in the coolest spot where a draft might waft through the punched holes in the tins to keep the food stored inside from spoiling. The punched holes also kept the flies and other undesirable vermin at bay (rats sometimes beat the system by gnawing a hole in the backboards).

In many homes of this period, especially farming homes, the major meal of the day was served at noon. A huge meal would be prepared for those who had been toiling in the fields. There might be a ham taken from the smokehouse (fried chicken was a little less common), or items might be brought in from the springhouse or root cellar where they would have been stored in a relatively cool climate.

The spread of food at noon would be impressive, but so would be the appetites of those who had been laboring in the fields and in the hot sun. After the prodigious meal, the remains would be covered and put in the pie safe, where they would form the basis for the evening supper.

In the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries, families did not go down to the local furniture store and purchase their pie safes. Often times, a craftsman in town would make the piece to order, or dad or grandad would pass the time making a family pie safe during the slow winter months. The tins for the sides and doors would be punched from a design that was in the maker’s head. It might be an eagle, a tree growing out of a sugar bowl or a rooster, or if the maker was a Mason, a design based on Masonic symbolism.

Collectors love these. The folk art design of the tins and the craftsmanship that could sometimes be idiosyncratic, plus the beauty of the wood — usually pine, walnut or in special cases, figured walnut — can be very alluring. Unfortunately, the example in today’s question is a very late example and manufactured. It was probably sold by a retailer such as Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and the tin inserts are machine made and ones we see frequently.

This piece is circa 1900 (somewhat later than the time when iceboxes became available to the general public), and appears to have been made from oak. The piece in today’s question has a retail value of perhaps $750, but it will bring much less if sold by A.H.

View the original post online.

Treasures: Slant-Top Desks Used to be More Valuable

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, including slant top, fall front and bureau desk.

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, including slant top, fall front and bureau desk.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I live in Staten Island, New York, and I recently purchased this slant desk from an upstate New York antiques dealer and would like to know more about my purchase. Is it a Chippendale desk? How old do you estimate it to be? Can you tell me a brief history of this type of desk?

Thank you,


Dear J.R.:

There is a lot of ground to be covered here, and we are going to start with the last of the three questions asked.

This type of desk is known by a variety of names, but often it is called a slant-top desk. Among several other things (such as a fall front desk), it is also called a Governor Winthrop desk, but this is completely inappropriate.

John Winthrop was the 17th-century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and died in 1647, which is more than a century earlier than this type of desk came into common usage. The nomenclature “Governor Winthrop desk” originated in 1924, when the Winthrop Furniture Company of Boston produced slant-top desks and gave them the Governor Winthrop name.

In a nutshell, Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was born in Otley, Yorkshire, England. His father, John Chippendale, was a joiner (or cabinet maker), and Thomas followed in his footsteps. But Thomas Chippendale became something of a fashionable furniture designer as well as a craftsman. In 1754, he published the extremely influential book “The Gentlemen’s and Cabinet Maker’s Directory.”

Chippendale’s published designs echo to this day and furniture more or less in his style is still widely made around the world. In short, this desk is generally called a Chippendale-style slant-top desk, but in reality it is too plain and too chunky to have come from either Chippendale’s mind or hand.

Now, it is time to address the age of the piece, and right up front we need to say that despite the excellent photographs that J.R. sent (thank you), it is impossible to be sure about the exact age. However, we do have an opinion based on what we see.

The first things we noticed when we looked at the photographs were the escutcheons that cover the keyholes. These are very 19th/20th century and they said “wrong!” in a very loud voice that was only intensified by the modern screws in the hinges (which are also probably quite modern).

Then we noticed that the bracket feet had been cut down. But as bad as this is, we began to look at the other repairs and saw the wood patches, the wider boards, and some of the other construction details and began to believe that the carcass of the piece has some significant age. This is not a rare form and we see many of these each year.

This particular example is probably late 18th or early 19th century, country made. And although desks of this type were once more valuable than they are today, this one is currently worth less than $1,000 at retail.

View the original article here.

Treasures: Chocolate Set is the Real Deal

This lovely pot was used to serve hot chocolate in the matching cups and saucers.

This lovely pot was used to serve hot chocolate in the matching cups and saucers.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

This chocolate set belonged to my grandmother, who loved and cherished it. It consists of the pot with lid and four cups and saucers. I am very interested in knowing what the value might be.

Thank you,


Dear S.S.:

At least one important thing was left out of this letter — and that is how these pieces are marked.

Oh yes, we knew who made this set as soon as we saw the photograph of the pot, but some of the work of this particular factory went unmarked. Then we saw the final photo in the group and there, plain as day, was what we were hoping to see: a wreath with a star above, the initials “RS” inside and the word “Prussia” below.

To be sure, there was a time when this ware was so popular that fakers made decals available with a poor approximation of this iconic trademark that people could affix to any piece of china and offer it as being the real “RS Prussia.” Only the inexperienced were fooled, for the most part. But there is no question that the chocolate set in today’s question is the real thing.

This porcelain set (actually, it’s probably a partial set with two to four cups and saucers missing) was made in the Thuringian town of Suhl, which, after the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, became part of Prussia (later a part of a larger unified Germany). In the mid-19th century, Suhl was a town looking for an industry, and in 1861 Erdmann Schlegelmilch opened a factory to make porcelain, which was followed by Reinhold Schlegelmilch’s firm in 1869. Finally, Carl Schlegelmilch opened his factory in 1882.

None of the Schlegelmilchs listed above were apparently related to one another, but it was Reinhold’s factory that started using the RS Prussia mark around 1904 or 1905. Most sources say the mark stopped being used in the late 1930s.

It should be understood that all the RS Prussia-marked wares from the Reinhold Schlegelmilch factory were decorated with transfer prints and never hand-painted. Their porcelain was thin, translucent and beautiful, and the vast majority of the designs were floral in nature. Examples that were factory-decorated with birds, animals, buildings, scenes or portraits are considered to be rare by varying degrees.

The molds that Schlegelmilch used to make his wares are often designated with numbers and names. The one used to make S.S.’s chocolate set is generally referred to as mold 553. The floral decoration also has a pattern designation, i.e., FD (floral decoration) 91. This combination usually has a satin finish.

We understand why S.S.’s grandmother cherished this lovely circa 1910 chocolate set, but sadly, like so many other collectible items, prices have greatly declined over the past decade or so. Today, this set should be valued in the range of $400 to $500 for retail.

Read the full article here.

Treasures: Charming Artwork must be seen in Person to Determine True Value

Dear Helaine and Joe:

This is my most recent attic find! The piece is signed “Virgilio Tojetti.” What is it worth?

Thank you,

R. M., U.S. Army

Dear R. M.:

We call this column “Treasures in Your Attic,” but it is a sad fact that people very seldom find actual treasures in their attic.

Yes, they exist and do surface from time to time, but we feel it is unusual for attic treasure hunters to find something this beautiful and with potential monetary value of some significance. Before we go on, we want to state that the attic is really a very poor place to store art and antiques.

The atmosphere is ever-changing, and that can be a very bad thing for delicate treasures. Also, mice and bugs are often in these spaces, and they love to eat almost anything they find.

In short, we urge people to know what is actually in their attic and store the perishable things — such as this delightful portrait — somewhere else that is more climate controlled and vermin-free.

Initially, there was some question in our minds about what medium was used to create this picture of a girl with such a charmingly innocent expression and butterflies and moths flying around her head.

Could it be oil on canvas? Could it be a watercolor, or possibly a pastel?

Least desirable of all, could it be a print? We just do not know without more information from R. M., but we enlarged the picture she sent us and feel we can rule out oil on canvas because it has areas of foxing (brown spots possibly caused by a fungus). This suggests the picture was done on some sort of paper.

The frame, which is probably the original, is in a late 19th century rococo revival style, but we are sure R. M. has noticed the crest is damaged with one side of the floral apex missing part of its ribbon and leaf motif. This is easily repaired by a professional, but the expense may not be justified by the after repair value versus the current unrepaired value.

The artist of the piece was born in Rome in 1851 to an artistic family. Virgilio Tojetti’s father was a fresco (painting on wet plaster) artist and restorer who once worked for the Vatican. In 1867, the family relocated to Mexico, Guatemala and finally settled in San Francisco.

Virgilio studied in Paris and was a genre, landscape, mural and portrait painter who moved to New York City in 1883 and died there in 1901. His works sell at auction between $500 and $30,000, and his most popular pieces are depictions of beautiful women.

One of us thinks this may be a pastel, which should be valued in the $4,500 to $6,500 range, but the other thinks it is a print worth maybe $200 because of the foxing, which can be fixed, and the damaged frame. The piece needs to be seen in person by a specialist before it is insured to determine the real value.

Read the full article here.

Treasures: Seals Can Hold Many Meanings

This Chinese seal is remarkable for its large size.

This Chinese seal is remarkable for its large size.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I believe this Chinese seal could be soapstone, but it is more likely to be the mineral serpentine. The translation of the seal (or so I have been told) is “lasting rejuvenation.” It is 10 inches tall by 3 inches square. Any information about age and value would be appreciated.



Dear S.J.M.:

East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) seals can be a bit more complicated than the casual American observer might think. There are, for example, name seals that are used for signing letters or documents, or even books and paintings.

There are also studio seals, which may be the name of a company or a society, or it may be the name used by an artist on his work, or even the inscription of a poem or proverb that expresses something special about the seal’s owner. There is another type of seal that we have seen referred to as a free seal.

These so-called free seals may indicate a person’s philosophy, or an expression of the owner’s character. It might also be a protective charm to protect against demons or to ensure the missive reaches its intended recipient safely.

The seals most collectors see are fairly small (normally less than an inch to the side and less than 5 inches tall) and easily held in the hand. However, on occasion, a seal may be much larger — not unlike the example in today’s question — or a seal might just be a large square or rectangular stamp with little or no decoration used by officials to sign papers and documents.

Many seals are made from soapstone, which is also called steatite or soaprock, and is a talc schist that has a greasy feel. The talc content of the rock determines how hard it is. The soapstone used for a countertop might be just 30 percent talc, while a variety used for carving seals might be as much as 80 percent talc (the more talc, the soapier the feeling to the surface).

Serpentine, on the other hand, is hydrated magnesium silicate. It is a group of greenish, brownish or spotted minerals that is sometimes carved to make various kinds of objects, including seals. Serpentine is harder than soapstone, and this seal could be from that material. Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure from just one photograph.

We briefly considered the seal might have been made from a variety of Shoushan or Tianhuang stone, but dismissed the possibility because the material is just not fine enough. The best of these stones — Tianhuang — is said to be worth three times its weight in gold. Shoushan is a kind of alabaster that is compared favorably to jade and comes in a variety of colors including amber/brown.

As for the age of the piece, we feel sure it is 20th century because the carving is not as subtle or as graceful as an earlier piece might be. We think it is mid to late Republic Period (1912-1949) and was probably not made for use but was intended to be used as decoration. More photographs would have been very helpful, and the value cannot be determined without them, but it is probably less than $500.

Read the full article here.

Treasures: Parian Piece is charming, good quality

This statue was probably made from parian porcelain, not parian marble.

This statue was probably made from parian porcelain, not parian marble.

Dear Helaine and Joe:

My husband and I have a number of items that belonged to our parents, and we have been unable to find any information on them. One is a statue holding a lamb. It has no markings, but the piece has been in my husband’s family since childhood (he is now 81). We have no idea as to when this was made or by whom. Can you enlighten us?

Thank you,


Dear I.N.:

Sometimes, we just have to do some detective work tinged with just a tad of guessing. In this case, there are two possible materials from which this charming Victorian statue of a girl petting her little lamb could have been made.

One is a special kind of porcelain called “Parian,” and the other is from a white marble that is often called by the same name. Parian marble was quarried starting in the 6th century B.C. on the Greek island of Paros and was much prized for use in in the classical statuary of the Greeks, later by the Romans.

Parian marble is fine grained, semitranslucent and pure white. We understand the material is still being quarried on the nearby Greek island of Naxos. Other types of marble are also white, but Pentelic marble has a faint yellow cast and Carrara marble (quarried in northern Italy and the favorite of Renaissance artist Michelangelo) has a faint gray tinge.

Marble is metamorphic limestone. Pieces made from it are heavy and in unpolished areas look like what it is — rock. Since I.N. did not mention that her piece was rather heavy and was made from rock, we are assuming it is lighter in weight and is indeed Parian porcelain, which originated in England in the early 1840s.

Parian ware — or Parian porcelain — is creamy white with the grainy surface that might be associated with the stone of the same name. The original name for the ware was “statuary porcelain” and the originators were Copeland and Garrett of Stoke, Staffordshire, England.

The firm worked in the old Spode works, and they were in business under the name “Copeland and Garrett” from 1833 to 1847 when the company became W.T. Copeland. The new Parian porcelain was faddishly popular during much of the Victorian era because it made classical and Victorian marble sculpture affordable.

Copeland made it, Minton made it and before long almost every pottery in England was making it. The big names produced beautiful copies of statuary, but the small firms often turned out sloppy pieces lacking in both detail and quality. Many, many pieces went unsigned, and we believe the piece in today’s question is English Victorian Parian ware made in the third quarter of the 19th century.

This is a charming Parian piece of better quality, but the poorly crafted examples have depressed prices somewhat, and the example in today’s question is worth $400 to $600 unless it is unusually large or turns out to be signed with initials in an inconspicuous place.

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