Oh Christmas Tree!


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-Daniela Belgiovine

KugelObsession.comEvery year, in preparation for Christmas, families around the world select an evergreen tree to bring into their homes and decorate with glistening lights and beautiful ornaments. This tree often becomes the focal point of the family gathering on Christmas morning. But where did this tradition originate?

The practice of adorning one’s home with evergreen boughs serves as a symbol of the promise of life to come after the cold months of winter, and the tradition began as a Pagan ritual for the winter solstice for various civilizations, including the Druids, Romans, and Vikings, even dating back to the ancient Egyptians.

The tradition of decorating evergreen trees for Christmas dates back to the 16th century in Germany, where families would decorate trees with apples, as a representation of the tree in the Garden of Eden. Later, nuts, berries, cookies, and paper streamers were added to the décor. Much of this depended on what was available and what the family could afford. The idea of decorating a tree for Christmas did not come to America until the 1770s, but Colonial Americans found this tradition odd and saw it as a frivolous Pagan ritual.

In the 1800s, with German and English immigration, this tradition began to take hold. Its popularity skyrocketed during the reign of Queen Victoria because a publication released a depiction of the Queen and her family surrounding a decorated evergreen. Thus, the practice became fashionable for all American families.

The origin of glass ornaments began in Germany in the 1830s. The area around Lauscha was the hub of the glass ornament, or kugel, trade in Germany. Initially replacing fruits, nuts, and other food items, they branched out into making hearts, stars, angels, bells, and other shapes, eventually creating molds of children, saints, famous figures, and animals.

W. Woolworth visited Germany in the 1880s and decided to import glass ornaments to sell in his stores. By the 1890’s, he was selling $25 million in German imported ornaments made of lead and hand-blown glass. World War I halted production and imports of ornaments from Germany, but also created momentary backlash against all things German. New York importer, Max Eckhardt, saw that his business and the supply of ornaments suffered after the Great Depression, and in the late-1930s, he and Woolworth joined forces to persuade the Corning Glass Company to make American glass ornaments. Corning agreed, and by 1940 they were producing 300,000 per day, and sending them to various companies for decoration, and from there to retailers.

Today, collectors look for glass ornaments from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The greatest value is usually with ornaments that are shaped like objects or figures, rather than glass balls. Additionally, condition is extremely important, and it is rare that these delicate baubles make it to market in pristine condition. Shapes like clusters of grapes, famous personalities, and animals can sell anywhere from $40-$1,000 apiece depending on color, rarity, and condition, although the higher end is extremely rare. On the other hand, an entire box of stenciled ‘Shiny Brite’ ornaments from the mid-20th century, in good condition, might sell for $50-$60. If you are looking to give your tree a vintage look you don’t have to spend a fortune, but, as always, beware of reproductions!

Photo Credit & Resources: KugelObsession.com; History.com; ReadersDigest.com


Retro Flash Back: The Allure of Crackle Glass


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All it takes is one stream of light shining through your window to create a rainbow effect after it illuminated that bottle or vase sitting on your sill. Perhaps, this is the magic that keeps collectors returning to that local tag sale or flea market in search of another sparkling keepsake.

Vintage Blenko Crackle Glass Miniature Pitchers 

Vintage Blenko Crackle Glass Miniature Pitchers


Crackle glass, one of the most common collectibles, will produce such an effect from that stray sunbeam, leaving you dazzled without warning when displays of colored, refracted light fill your room. Created as far back as the 16th century, this dime-store dazzler had a resurgence in the 1950’s and reached it’s zenith in the 1960’s to complement the modern décor of the Madmen era. Bold or clear, shaded or iridescent, crackle glass was available in all varieties and price ranges to complement interior spaces and wallets. From inexpensive eye catchers to pricey floor standing vases, crackle glass was easily available because it is a treatment rather than a type of glass.

Vintage Ruby Crackle Glass 

Vintage Ruby Crackle Glass


The ‘crackling’ finish is created when a hot glass object is submerged in cold water, a technique that can be applied to just about any type of sturdy glass. The abrupt temperature change creates a network of fine cracks in the glass leaving the light to deflect patterns of the irregular cracks on other surfaces.

Initially, crackle glass was hand blown, but quick popularity led to less-expensive moulded glass knockoffs. And, since any glass manufacture could utilized the crackling technique, almost every company created crackle glass, including Tiffin, Duncan and Imperial, but the most notable crackle glass firms were located in West Virginia. Especially noted for miniatures, Pilgrim, Rainbow, Kanwha and Bishoff, created those diminutive jugs, vases, and pitchers that typically adorn the interior of many households. But the master manufacturer of crackle glass was Blenko.

Blenko CrackleGlassVases 

Blenko Crackle Glass Vases


Originally known for producing stained glass, Blenko expanded its glassware to include richly colored, oversized art glass vessels. After the market for stained glass bottomed out in the Depression of 1929, William H. Blenko, the son of the founder was forced to seek out other revenue sources and expanded glassware production to include affordable decorative housewares, including bottles and vases. Their past experience with manufacturing stained glass contributed to the vast color palette that forged Blenko’s reputation. In the mid 1940s, Blenko produced crackle glass miniatures, and by the 1960s large scale versions in both crackle and no-crackle finishes were available. The two prominent artisans for Blenko, Winslow Anderson (1947-1952) was noted for modern shapes and vivid colors, while Wayne Husted, the design director (1952-1963) was responsible for hundreds of designs produced during that period. Joel Philip Myers, Blenko’s design director (1963-1970), a skilled glass blower, was known for elongated forms, spirals, two-color and air twist stoppers.

Today, crackle glass collectors have an array of options to choose from including color, type and size of vessel. Others focus on a particular company or artist. Many of us, however simply collect crackle glass for its bargain prices, and ability to brighten even a cloudy day.

Resources: Journal of Antiques & Collectibles, Etsy


Prominant Positions – Chinese Rank Badges


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3rd Rank Civil Badge Peacock

-Daniela Belgiovine

Working in the appraisal business, we often have the pleasure of inspecting, researching, and valuing pieces of history. One such object that we have come across in the homes of several clients is the Chinese rank badge. These badges have become coveted collector’s items, but buyers must beware that new copies are being made and sold as antique originals. These badges are generally 11” x 11”. One thing to be alert of when purchasing is the smell of smoke. Many of the newly made badges have been smoked in order to give the appearance of age.

During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in China, important men were recognized by the elaborately stitched rank badges displayed on the chests and backs of their robes. These mandarin rank badges were only earned after numerous years of intensive study, followed by three grueling rounds of examinations. There were two different groups who achieved badges, civil and military, each of which could be easily defined based on the image stitched on the badge. While each category had nine ranks, the civil badge6th Rank Military Panthers featured birds and the military badges featured animals, both real and mythical. Within each group, each rank can also be identified based on the type of bird or animal. If one wanted to rise in the ranks, there were several ways to achieve a higher status, either through passing further exams, performing service worthy of merit, or purchasing a promotion. Although only men could earn rank badges, their wives were entitled to wear badges of their husbands’ rank for official occasions. In this case, the badges were mirror images of the men’s.

The Imperial family also wore badges on their robes, bearing phoenixes or dragons. Any other motifs, such as peonies or lanterns, were worn for festivals and ceremonies by palace courtiers, and later the Imperial court. Just like the civil and military badges, the specific image identifies the individual’s position within the Imperial family. Rank badges for the Imperial family and government officials originated in the decorative roundels sewed onto the front and back of the robes of Liao (907-1125) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasty court officials. They were adopted by the Ming dynasty in 1391, and by the Qing dynasty in 1652, at which point a decree was issued that required all civil and military officials to wear their identifying badge on the front and back of their robes.Imperial Rank Badge

As a collector, is it more likely that you will come across civil badges of high rank. This is because those of higher rank were of higher wealth, and thus were able to purchase many more badges. Additionally, when the Republican revolution overthrew the imperial system in 1911, military men destroyed their badges so as not to be identified. Those of civil rank were incorporated into the new government and had no need to destroy their badges. We can be thankful to western collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries that a number of authentic badges still exist. Many of these collectors put the badges under glass, preserving them for later generations.

There are many more details involved in properly identifying these badges, check out http://www.pacificasiamuseum.org/rankandstyle/ for more information

Photo 1: Civil Rank Badge, 3rd Rank, Peacock
Photo 2: Military Rank Badge, 6th Rank, Panther
Photo 3: Imperial Rank Badge, Qing Dynasty

Photo Credits & Resources: George Washington University Museum Textile Museum, Washington, DC; The Journal of Antiques & Collectibles, ‘Chinese Rank Badges’, January 17, 2005; Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA

A Change of Perspective – The Antique Picture Frame


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-Martine White, ASA, AAA

2. J. Alden Weir Painting in Stanford White Frame

Experts contend that picture frames are one of the most undervalued antiques. In the past many galleries and even some museums have considered old frames not worth restoring or just plain out-of-style. Even today, knowledgeable frame collectors are rare and although frames are prized in Europe, in the United States they are routinely overlooked, abandoned or discarded.

Bill Adair, the author of ‘The Frame in America, 1700-1900’ states that the modern ethic has instilled a preference for minimalist frames making the elaborate gold leaf picture frame nearly a lost art. Further, general historic information is not readily available on picture frames.

However, attitudes about old frames are starting to turn the corner and “the finest frames are works of art in their own right” states Eli Wilner, founder and CEO of Eli Wilner & Company, a Manhattan gallery specializing in fine antique frames and period replicas.

4. French 18th C

As 18th and 19th Century frames have become the focus of museum exhibitions, collector interest in rare frames has also piqued. Savvy collectors generally prefer hand-carved wooden frames made in the 18th century, or signed frames from the early 20th century. Size is also a factor, as monumental frames with documented provenance can easily sell in the six figures. Barbizon School picture frames, originally crafted to adorn landscape paintings, are also sought after by collectors. Similarly, early 20th Century frames crafted by Newcomb & Macklin are prized for their fine craftsmanship.

Among the most valuable American frames are those from the Arts and Crafts Period, many of which are signed, including frames by Charles Prendergast and Foster Brothers. Rare frames by Stanford White, Herman Dudley Murphy or Charles Prendergast can cost more than $200,000. In fact, in 1991 a 17th-century carved mirror frame sold for a record high of $947,000 at Sotheby’s in London.

1. Stanford.White

The right frame can bring a painting to life. Choosing a frame that is historically and aesthetically appropriate to a painting not only increases the value of the painting, it enhances the perspective of the painting, creating a three-dimensional affect.

Perhaps the time has come to appreciate the antique picture frame, and find one that best complements your landscape or portrait painting. You certainly don’t need to travel very far to find an exquisitely carved antique picture frame. They reside in attics, basements, and local antique stores. You can also find them at estate sales, flea markets and even on the curbside with the trash. The right antique picture frame will not only enhance your painting, it may change your perspective on the work itself.

3.FrameTools5. Eli WIlner's Master Carver, Felix

Antique Frame Galleries & Restorers:

Eli Wilner & Company, New York, NY

Gill & Lagodich Fine Period Frames & Restoration, Tribeca, NY

Julius Lowy Frame & Restoration Company, New York, NY

*Photographs Compliments of Eli Wilner & Company and Pook & Pook Auctions

Photo 1: J. Alden Weir, (1852-1919) American landscape painter, oil on canvas
Photo 2: French 18th Century Relief Carved Gilt Frame
Photo 3: Stanford White frame, Early 20th Century
Photo 4: Picture Frame Carving Tools
Photo 5: Eli Wilner’s Master Carver, Felix

The Great Divide – Antique Floor Screens


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Photo 1. Screen Decoration; applied cloisonné Calligraphic Banquet Poem copying a famous poem from 1682.

Photo 1. Screen Decoration; applied cloisonné Calligraphic Banquet Poem copying a famous poem from 1682.

It may not seem an essential piece of furniture, but an attractive floor screen can easily transform any living space and add dimension to your interior. Coco Chanel recognized the appeal as she famously sought out dozens of antique lacquered screens to adorn her Paris abode. Even Yves Saint Laurent favored the glamour of parchment panels by the designer Jean-Michel Frank. Many interior designers also agree that a thoughtfully placed screen can add drama and mystery to a space.

Whereas drama is not an essential component to a living space, the screen served practical functions as well. From as early as the third century B.C., the screen adorned imperial palaces in China, and was known to not only block drafts but shield the heat of embers in the Victorian period. Even the needlepoint fire screen became the focal point in Victorian homes as it displayed the embroidery skill of the homemaker.

While English and American screens were primarily framed woven panels intended for re-directing heat from the fireplace, Asian screens were hand-painted wooden panels that served purely as decoration. Artists in both China and Japan joined multiple panels to create elaborate scenes of painted imagery using gold and silver leaf to reflect the light of oil lamps. In the 17th century these painted and lacquered panels soon became symbols of wealth as English and Dutch tradesman began supplying Europe with these exotic decorations.

The Chinese Coromandel screens, named for the Indian coast where they were loaded onto ships for export, were ebonized folding lacquered panels often decorated in gold and frequently applied with specimen stones illustrating in-depth landscapes featuring figures at leisure in gardens and pavilions. In contrast, Japanese screens of the 19th century were often decorated with naturalistic imagery in gold detail on silk panels.

Today modern screens can reconfigure a room, create a dramatic backdrop or establish an entirely different mood.  Whether they are relief carved, perforated wood panels or Modern molded plywood screens by Charles and Ray Eames, a screen can add an architectural element where one doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s the versatility that makes screens so desirable.  You can rearrange them, transfer them to another room or fold them up for storage. Unlike the walls we live within, you can even take them with you.

Photo 2. Detail; a 19th Century Chinese Eight-Panel Folding Screen in the Kangxi style.

Photo 2. Detail; a 19th Century Chinese Eight-Panel Folding Screen in the Kangxi style.

The above article was written by Martine M. White of Bernards Appraisal Associates, LLC, in Gladstone, New Jersey. Ms. White is a Senior Certified Appraiser of Antiques & Decorative Arts with the American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America. Ms. White has been appraising personal property in the Metropolitan area since 1988. Martine and her associates specialize in appraising fine art, antique furniture, Oriental carpets, silver and jewelry. Martine can be reached at 908.234.1153.

Buying Your Perfect Diamond


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Diamond RingThere is a lot to consider when purchasing a diamond. You want to make sure that you are getting the most beautiful, high quality gem that your money can buy, but what do you need to know? In the end you shouldn’t get too “hung up” on optics, angles and scientific details. You should remember the old expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. The question is, ultimately, do you think it’s a beautiful diamond? Does it take your breath away? Understanding the quality factors will help, but don’t worry, you don’t need to become a diamond expert.

Particularly if it’s a larger diamond, it should be accompanied by a quality analysis report generated by a reputable gem lab, like the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). At the least, a qualified and experienced gemologist should analyze the diamond. Once we know the gem has been properly graded, the next question is, how do we look at the grading criteria and determine which stone is the best for us? Four criteria must be considered and need to be understood to buy intelligently. They are called the four C’s: Color, clarity, cut and carat weight.

Buying a diamond requires developing a personal opinion of what constitutes beauty and, with your budget in mind, deciding which of the criteria you’re willing to sacrifice and to what extent.

COLOR:  Although diamond occurs in every color of the spectrum, when we think about the first “C”, relatively color-less stones come to mind. The commonly accepted scale used to describe these colors starts with “D”, the most colorless, and ends with “Z”, the most yellow, brown or gray. The GIA developed this scale in 1953. Previously existing systems had used grades such as A, AA, AAA, B and C. It was a confusing array of letters that had questionable meaning.

GIA’s scale eliminated much of the confusion by starting with the letter “D” and established clearly defined grades, as follows:

  • D through F               colorless
  • G through J                near colorless
  • K through M               faint yellow, brown or gray
  • N through R               very light yellow, brown or gray
  • S through Z               light yellow, brown or gray

Most people will be unable to see color in a diamond with a grade as low as “I” or “J”, particularly if it’s in a setting. If the setting is yellow gold, the diamond’s color will be even harder to detect.

Fluorescence is a characteristic often associated with color. It is generally mentioned on “certificates”, next to the color grade. If a diamond is fluorescent, it “glows” when exposed to ultraviolet light, a component of sunlight. The most common fluorescent color is blue but other colors occur as well. Blue fluorescence has the potential to lessen the appearance of yellow-ness in a diamond, making it look better. Faint or medium blue fluorescence will not detract from the beauty or value of a diamond and might actually be considered a distinctive identifying feature.  If blue fluorescence is strong or very strong, however, the diamond may, on rare occasions, appear “oily” or lose a bit of transparency, particularly when viewed outdoors.

Here are a few things to think about that relate to the color of the diamond you’re selecting:

  1. What size diamond would you like?
  2. What is the shape and facet arrangement of the gem?
  3. If the stone is well cut, and therefore more brilliant, the color grade may not need to be as high.
  4. If the stone is intended for an engagement ring, you may want to spend a little more and get a better color.
  5. If the diamond is less than .25 carats, it doesn’t show its color to the same extent, so a top color grade may be unnecessary.

One needs to determine how colorless they would like their new diamond to be, relative to their budget. Some will opt for a colorless stone because of its great rarity and others will choose lower color grade diamonds because one or more of the other C’s is more important to them. There are many that will select a diamond with a color grade in the G to J range because they’re not the most expensive and yet, the average person will not see any color in the stone. There is no right or wrong answer. With a clear understanding of the nature of color in diamond, you simply need to decide what’s most important to you.

CLARITY: The clarity grade of a diamond is an expression of the visibility of features within the stone and on its surface, at 10 power magnification. Internal characteristics are called inclusions and surface features are called blemishes. The eleven possible grades are as follows:

  • FL                                          Flawless
  • IF                                          Internally Flawless
  • VVS1 &VVS2                           Very, Very Slightly Included
  • VS1 & VS2                              Very Slightly Included
  • SI1 & SI2                               Slightly Included
  • I1, I2 & I3                               Included

As with color, top clarity grade diamonds are very rare and very expensive. However, the average person will not generally be able to see even an SI2 inclusion with their untrained eye. Is rarity important to you? How much would you be willing to pay for it? There are a few things to consider when deciding on your preferred clarity grade. It’s harder to see inclusions in:

  1. Small stones
  2. Diamonds with points like marquise and pears
  3. Gems with smaller facets
  4. Bezel-set stones with metal covering the entire edge of the diamond.

With these things in mind, you might opt for a lower clarity grade stone than you would otherwise. Be aware, however, some inclusions are less desirable than others. Chips and surface-reaching fractures may actually undermine the durability of the gem.

CUT: The third “C” is the most complicated. The cut grade is assigned after considering the geometry of the finished diamond and the care that was taken in polishing the facets, regardless of the stone’s shape (i.e. round, oval, pear, cushion, etc.) and facet arrangement. A well cut diamond returns as much light to the viewer’s eye as possible. This light could be seen as brilliance (white light), fire (colored light) or sparkle; hopefully a pleasing combination of the three.

A complication arises when the following question is asked: “what combination of proportions and angles creates the ideal balance of brilliance, fire and sparkle?” There have been a variety of answers to that question. Many diamond cutters, scientists, gemologists and jewelers have offered their opinions and presented their evidence. As of yet, however, an “ideal” has not been universally agreed upon, particularly for shapes other than round. So where does that leave you?

The laboratories that assign a cut grade, use terms to describe ranges of cut quality. GIA’s cut grading scale, for example, is as follows: Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor (it is assigned for round stones only). After seeing a number of diamonds, you’ll realize that not every “excellent” cut diamond looks the same but every one should look more brilliant, fiery and/or sparkling than a “very good” or “good” cut grade diamond and you’ll develop an opinion of what type and pattern of light return you prefer. If you’re shopping for a round diamond, use these grades as a guide, but regardless of whether the diamond is round or not, consider the type and quality of light return. Do you think it’s attractive?

CARAT WEIGHT: This is the only one of the 4-C’s that has nothing to do with quality. There are large, poor quality diamonds and small high quality diamonds. Carat weight, however, has everything to do with rarity. Big diamonds are harder to find than small ones, so they’re more expensive. What’s a carat, you ask? A carat is a unit of weight that equals a fifth of a gram. One carat is made up of 100 points.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that relates to carat weight. The price for certain significant weights is higher than one might expect. The cost of a half carat (50 point) diamond, for example, is higher than a 49 point stone, all other factors being equal. The difference is more than one point would justify, however. The reason for the jump in price is the psychological significance of a half carat. Other significant weights are one carat, a carat and a half and two carats. So, if you’re interested in buying a one carat diamond, you’ll save some money if you get a “98 pointer” instead. It will look like a one carat stone but no one will know it’s a couple of points shy.

As you’re shopping around, decide which of the 4-C’s is most important to you. Although you may not consider yourself a diamond expert, you now know what makes one diamond more or less desirable than another and you know what you’re willing to spend. Make sure that you allow your own personal sense of beauty to guide you in selecting your perfect diamond.

This article was written by Daniel W. Campbell, BS, GG, FGA, Graduate Gemologist and Associate Appraiser at Bernards Appraisal Associates, LLC in Gladstone, New Jersey. (908) 234-1153


Taking Stock – The Importance of Archiving Your Assets


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It’s human nature to keep thoughts of devastating fires, storms and theft furthest from our minds. But if disaster strikes, are you prepared? Having a detailed property inventory is the first step to ensuring that you will not only survive a damage loss, but that you will be made whole again.

So why is it that doing a property inventory is the last thing on our ‘to do’ list? Is it that taking inventory of our lives is too close to home? A property inventory is crucial not only to determine adequate amounts of insurance coverage prior to a loss, but it will also expedite the claims process after a loss has occurred.

Establishing adequate insurance coverage for the contents within your home is the driving force behind the decision to conduct a personal property inventory. Having an up-to-date inventory not only establishes your net worth of tangible property, it also helps you to adjust your insurance coverage accordingly. You may even discover that after your assets are valued you are under-insured, or better yet, over-insured, and paying too high an insurance premium.

However, there is another reason you may consider conducting an inventory. Perhaps you are relocating, scaling down or starting to consider which items to bequeath to loved ones. Whatever your goals, knowing the value of your property is the first step to making an informed decision.

Developing an Inventory/Appraisal

There are two common types of property inventories: written and pictorial. The ideal inventory combines both types of inventories, including a detailed written and enumerated inventory that is supported by photographs of the property. There are many different software options out there to help with the inventory process, however it is essential that you have a value to go along with the description.

After the Inventory/Appraisal

After you have developed your inventory or received your appraisal it is important to store a backup copy at an off-premise location, such as a safe deposit box or with a trusted relative. You should also provide a copy of your inventory/appraisal to your insurance agent and use this document to review your current content coverage to make any necessary adjustments. In many instances, the valuable items, including antiques, silver, Oriental carpets and jewelry may not be covered under your general homeowners insurance. Specialty items often require special coverage beyond the basic contents coverage. This additional insurance coverage is referred to as a rider or floater and provides the policyholder with extra protection beyond the provisions contained in a standard insurance agreement.

Updating the Inventory

The property inventory should be updated every six months to one year. The appraisal is required by the insurance industry to be updated every three years for adequate insurance coverage. If you are in the process of re-furnishing your home or collecting, be sure to continuously collect receipts from new purchases and keep them entered in a database.

Tips for Pictorial Inventories

  • Take wide-angle photographs or a video of entire rooms.
  • Take individual, close-up shots of expensive items.
  • Zoom in on important labels and special features such as signatures of paintings, underside of an antique vase, close-up image of the reverse of an Oriental carpet to illustrate the foundation weave, and the secondary construction of antique furniture, i.e., the drawer frame.
  • Take photos of the interior of cabinets, and drawers to illustrate the contents.
  • Label each photo with the description, item name and date.

Although it is always important to document the big ticket items, such as artwork and antique furniture, don’t forget that the small items such as decorative art and silver can really add up. At some point in our lives there comes a time when we need to take stock of all the personal artifacts we have inherited and/or accumulated along the way. Don’t wait until it’s too late, for you never really know what you have until you have lost it.

The above article was written by Martine M. White of Bernards Appraisal Associates, LLC, in Gladstone, New Jersey. Ms. White is a Senior Certified Appraiser of Antiques & Decorative Arts with the American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America. Ms. White has been appraising personal property in the Metropolitan area since 1988. Martine and her associates specialize in appraising fine art, antique furniture, Oriental carpets, silver and jewelry. Martine can be reached at 908.234.1153.


Mixed Messages in 2012 Auction Art Sales


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Is the art market’s pace giving us mixed messages? How is it that the major auction houses have painted completely different art sale pictures?

In 2012, Christie’s sold a total of $6.3 billion worth of fine and decorative art which included $5.3 billion in auction sales and $1 billion in privately brokered art sales. While auction sales at Christie’s increased 10%, their privately brokered sales rose $26%. In contrast, during the same period, Sotheby’s auction sales fell 12%, despite their successful single night contemporary art sale of $375 million, and an additional $695 million in private art sales.

Although Christie’s managed to win a larger share of the trophy art that came up for sale in 2012, could the divergent sales results from the rival auction houses indicate collector ticker shock? In an arena that relies on acquiring the heavy hitters like Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” that realized $86.9 million and Monet’s “Water Lilies” that brought a record $43.8 million, still there are other factors that are contributing to Christie’s success. One explanation by Christie’s chief executive, Steven Murphy, is the influx of new buyers from the U.S. and Europe who came seeking artwork at online auctions for under $500,000. The other prominent factor is the financial guarantee that auction houses offer to woo heavyweight sellers. This undisclosed amount offered to the seller guarantees that their artwork will sell for a specified price, even if there is no competitive bid. Deemed to risky during the recession, today guarantees are once again commonplace.

The biggest Christie’s sale for the year included Andy Warhol’s $43.8 million “Statue of Liberty” and Yves Klein’s $36.8 million “The Pink of Blue.” While Sotheby’s pieces included Rothko’s $75.1 million “No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)” and Joan Miro’s $36.9 million “Blue Star.”

As the winter 2013 auctions get underway in London, they will once again contribute to the overall art sales, and perhaps paint us a more complete picture of the trends influencing the art market.

Joan Miro's %22Blue Star%22Image: Joan Miro’s “Blue Star”  Resource: The Wall Street Journal Corporate News, January 17, 2013


Decorating Your Tree With History



In the late 19th century, James Clements, a Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman decorated his evergreen Christmas tree with seventy-thousand dollars worth of gold nuggets he had found in the Klondike gold rush. And, though most of us probably won’t be able to enjoy such extravagance this holiday season, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree sets the tone for a joyous holiday spent with close friends and family.

Most Christmas trees are decorated with cherished ornaments passed down through recent generations and, though many have stories attached to them, their history remains clouded. This holds true for the history of the Christmas tree itself, and the story is fascinating in its own right.

Unlike James Clements’ tree, the earliest known ornaments did not have the glitter of gold, but they did have an epicurean appeal. These early trees, decorated with apples, were often thought of as an edible treat; however, the apple as we know had deeper significance.

The first detailed description of a decorated Christmas tree comes from early 15th century Strasbourg, Germany, and so many delicacies were known to have decorated the early Christmas tree, it soon became know as the “sugar tree”. Unlike today, children actually looked forward to dismantling the tree, for it was only on Epiphany, that they got to enjoy the treats.

Together, with many of the other customs we inherited from our ancestors, the immigrants of Germany brought with them to America their tree-decorating tradition. And, as this German tradition continued in the 19th century, Americans soon adopted the Christmas tree decorating custom. Innovative women began fashioning ornaments of beaded strings, ribbons, popcorn and paper, while others continued the German custom of hanging gifts on the branches of the tree for their children. Rather than the heavy boxed gifts that we place under our trees today, the nineteenth century gifts tended to be lightweight, unwrapped trinkets that also served the purpose of adorning the tree.

In the 1870s commercially made Christmas ornaments began to replace hanging gifts and edible ornaments. These early crafted ornaments were primarily made in Germany where artisans specialized in this novel craft. Often designed in tin, wax, embossed paper and hand-blown glass, the early designs were as numerous as they were unusual, ranging from exotic animals to mundane daily artifacts. By 1939, as World War II approached, the glass-blowing town of Lauscha was devastated by war and fell into the territory of the Soviets, eventually becoming part of East Germany. Disappearing as well was the satisfying profession of the craftsman glassblower. By 1940, to meet the demand for ornaments, the Corning Glass Company, of Corning, New York filled the market once dominated by German craftsmen with glass-blowing machines that churned out uniform round balls.

Antique German ornaments are still much sought after by collectors today. And, as with all antiques and collectibles, condition and rarity dictate the prices that some ornaments command in the market. Particularly valuable, are early blown-glass ornaments embellished with reflectors, pictures, and wire tinsel – while some of the most collectible ornaments have glistening effects produced by applied, shimmering chips of tiny glass.

In 1850, Charles Dickens captured the allure of the Christmas tree adorned with ornaments in the following abbreviated passage:  “I have been looking, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree…”

Dicken’s enchanting description of the nineteenth century Christmas tree leaves little room to wonder why American families became and continued to be fascinated with the tradition of Christmas tree decorating. If you are lucky enough to have inherited these cherished ornaments, you’ll probably agree that their most alluring feature is their whimsical character that brings out the child in even the most somber adult.

Photo 1: Photo Courtesy, Jim Morrison, National Christmas Center

Photo 2: Photo Courtesy, Motka.com


Martine White, of Bernards Appraisal Associates, LLC in Gladstone, New Jersey is a Senior Certified Appraiser of Antiques & Decorative Arts with the American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America. Ms. White has been appraising personal property in the Metropolitan area since 1988. Martine and her associates specialize in appraising antique furniture, silver, paintings, decorative art and Oriental rugs. Martine can be reached at 908-234-1153.




Un-Saleable Artwork: Does It Have Value?


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The lawyers representing the heirs of art dealer Ileana Sonnabend intend to debate whether the IRS can establish a value of artwork that cannot be sold, in order to collect $29 million in taxes.

The artwork under discussion is “Canyon” a 20th Century mixed media work created by Robert Rauschenberg in 1959 that was inherited by Mrs. Sonnabend’s children when she died in 2007. Since the sculpture contains a stuffed bald eagle, a bird that is under the Federal Protection Act for Endangered Species, the heirs would be committing a felony if they tried to sell it. As a result, their appraisers have valued the work at zero.

However, the IRS has an altogether different opinion – they valued “Canyon” at $69 million and they are demanding that the heirs pay $29.2 million in estate taxes. If it is illegal to sell the work, how can the IRS value it at $69 million? Although “Canyon” is a landmark masterwork of postwar Modernism, three appraisers including Christie’s had valued it at zero. In fact, many tax lawyers, estate planners and art collectors are astounded with the agency’s decision considering the I.R.S. guidelines stipulate that in figuring an item’s fair market value, taxpayers should “include any restrictions, or covenants limiting the use or disposition of the property.” In this case, the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle – alive or dead. Although Mrs. Sonnabend was able to maintain ownership of “Canyon”, in 1998 Rauschenberg was required to submit a notarized statement attesting that the eagle had been killed and stuffed long before the 1940 law was established. Further, the I.R.S. claimed that ownership could only be retained if the work remained on a long-term loan basis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The attorney’s for the clients contend that the I.R.S.’s handling of the work has been confusing. Last fall the agency valued “Canyon” at $15 million and after the family refused to pay the taxes the agency sent a formal letter stating they increased the value to $65 million. Evidently, the new valuation came from the agency’s Art Advisory Panel that is made up of experts and dealers who advise the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services Unit. One member, Stephanie Barron, a senior curator of 20th Century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where “Canyon” was exhibited for two years said “the group evaluated the work solely on its artistic value without reference to any accompanying restrictions or laws.”

Why didn’t the I.R.S. Art Advisory Panel include the governments endangered species restrictions when determining their valuation? Can artwork be valued solely on artistic attributes? Is the I.R.S. using a hypothetical black market sale scenario to base their valuation and presume that the taxpayers would engage in an illegal activity in order to sell their assets?

At the moment the heirs are clearly in a bind. If they don’t pay the taxes the I.R.S. claims is due, they would be guilty of violating federal tax laws and if they try to sell “Canyon” in order to pay their tax bill, they could go to jail for violating eagle protection laws. And since the heirs assert that “Canyon” has no dollar value, they could not claim a charitable deduction by donating the work to a museum.

It appears that the government has unfairly painted the taxpayers into a corner leaving them with no choice but to challenge the I.R.S.’s decision. Perhaps a new court precedent will be established when they both meet next month to debate in Washington.  From an appraisers standpoint, a value range of zero to $69 million is difficult to fathom!


Resource: The New York Times, Art Piece’s Sale Value? Zero. But the Tax Bill? $29 Million, Patricia Cohen