Thursday, 27 October 2005

Chiparus and Preiss - doyens among Art Deco sculptors

by Christopher Proudlove©
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preiss flame leaper

The new house is causing a problem: it's just not conducive to anything older than antiques dating from the Twenties.

This means that our old oak looks somewhat out of place and I dread to think what is going to happen to our Victorian knickknacks.

Of course, the answer is simple: sell it all and replace it with Art Deco. Easy, so long as funds permit, which is where the main problem lies. Worryingly, I suspect that with trends being as they are, the cash raised from selling the Victoriana wouldn't stretch far enough to make the project a proposition.

If funds were not an issue, I'd buy bronze and ivory figures like the examples pictured here.

I think it's a safe bet to say that they'll never be any less affordable than they are now but sadly they are already the preserve of only those collectors with deep pockets.

Two names stand above all others in this fascinating field of Art Deco: Demetre Chiparus (1888-1947) and Ferdinand Preiss (1882-1943) their products coming at a pivotal moment in the early 20th century between two world wars.

By then, the sinuous flower girls of the Art Nouveau era had withered and died, to be replaced by the athletic, erotic and futuristic subjects that are today so evocative of the period.

Ironically, however, when they were first seen, the more serious-minded art critics were dismissive of the figures, some of them suggesting they considered them to be in bad taste.

This is particularly the case with the Rumanian-born Chiparus who barely figures in contemporary articles on the decorative arts, with the result that today's collectors have scant information about his life. Indeed, some publications claim his dates of birth and death are unknown.

Chiparus was schooled in Italy and then Paris just before the outbreak of the First World War where he was a pupil of the sculptors Anonin Mercier and Jean Boucher.

His first exhibition was at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in 1914. He showed a number of small sculptures in bronze and received an honourable mention, an accolade that was much coveted among the artistic fraternity.

Another recipient of the award was Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Chiparus subsequently went on to experiment with the process of combining painted bronze with ivory, a technique known as chryselephantine.

The use of ivory for faces, hands and bare flesh gave the figures more natural, lifelike and tactile and adds greatly to their exotic appeal.

Chiparus became a naturalised Frenchman, married and had several children, some of whom feature in his figures.

However, he was fascinated by the dancers in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who entertained the cafe society in Paris, Leon Bakst’s stage designs and subsequently the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 which heavily influenced his designs and subject matter.

Some Chiparus figures were made in spelter cold-painted to represent bronze and ivorene, an early plastic, which was cast and also painted in bright colours.

Other examples of his work can be seen in the bronze figures commissioned by the firm of Arthur Goldscheider which were also reproduced in pottery.

Authentic examples of Chiparus brionzes (although by no means all) are each etched with this signature in the marble base and some show the name of the foundry where they were cast. However, there are many fakes.

Another distinguishing feature is the long slender fingers of the subjects. Look carefully and the detail of each fingernail is also carved delicately in the original, a feature the faker overlooks.

Johann Philipp Ferdinand Preiss was born in Erbach in Germany and clearly inherited his mother's skills as her family was engaged in the local cottage industry of ivory-carving.

His father was a hotelier but died when Preiss was 15, whereupon the boy was apprenticed to a master ivory carver whose family took him in.

By 1905, Preiss had emerged as a gifted carver in his own right and after a period studying in Milan, he joined a number of carvers working in a factory run by Carl Haebler in Baden-Baden.

Among them was Arthur Kassler and the two became friends and subsequently business partners in a workshop in Berlin where they produced turned and carved ivory for the local furniture and decorative trade.

The first figures combining bronze and ivory were introduced in 1910, by which time the company was trading as PK.

By the time of the First World War, the firm employed six people, including a bronze caster but was forced to close in 1914 on the outbreak.

Popular throughour Europe

Preiss and Kassler reopened the business in 1920, concentrating on producing a wide variety of exquisite figures designed by Preiss mounted on plinths of onyz or marble which were popular throughout Europe, particularly Britain, and the US.

In addition to nude studies, bathers, dancers, couples, children and historical figures, Priess also produced a series of Olympic-inspired figures showing men and women engaged in such sports as swimming, tennis and golf. They pre-date any connection with Hitler and the master race.

Preiss suffered a brain tumour and died in 1943 and the firm PK firm died with him. The company's workshop and its stock of samples was destroyed by fire in a ombing raid on Berlin in 1945.

As with all other bronze and ivory figures, those by Preiss have been faked mercilessly.

Advice to prospective buyers is to learn as much as you can first before parting with your hard-earned cash. Visit auction sales and expert dealers and handle what's on offer to get the feel of the real thing.

Ivory that has turned yellow with age should be avoided since it lowers value, as does age-cracked or damaged ivory, particularly on the faces of figures.

And finally, ask for written proof of authenticity should you buy from a dealer. If he declines to guarantee a figure is what he says it is, chances are both it and he are wrong 'uns. You, in turn, are safer keeping your cash in the building society.

Pictures show, top:

The Flame Leaper, a well known Preiss figure of a young woman leaping over flames holding flaming torches in each hand. She’s worth £12,000-15,000

Below, left to right:

Cabaret Girl, a Preiss figure wearing a bathing suit and cap. She’s worth £6,000-8,000

Perfect Preiss: Left to right, Golfer, Hoop Girl, Sonny Boy and Bather with parasol. Preiss was a master at capturing the natural expressions of his models. Each is worth £4,000-6,000

Miss Kita, a dancing girl with beaded top and headdress and stylish frilled skirt. She’s worth £8,000-10,000

Bottom, left to right:

The Chiparus bronze Kneeling Dancer, the figure wearing a hooded cat suitand standing n a brown marble base. It dates from the 1920s and is worth £12,000-15,000

This Chiparus dancing girl has an outfit cold-painted in gold and silver stands on brown mottled marble base and is worth £8,000-10,000

Almeria, a Chiparus dancing girls worth £10,000-12,000

preiss carbaret girlpreiss golfer etcchiparus miss kita
chiparus kneeling dancerchiparus dancing girlchiparus almeria

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Monday, 24 October 2005

Antique penknives - collectables at the cutting edge

by Christopher Proudlove©
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catalogue page

As penknives go, it was an ingenious little tool. Instead of the blade simply hinging open from one end of the knife, its action was controlled by a tiny, elongated button.

When depressed, the button allowed the blade to slide forward and then swing open and lock safely in place.

It was also phenomenally sharp, no doubt because it was made from incredibly tough turbine-blade carbon steel. It was clearly its owner's favourite.

We were attempting to fly a kite on the beach near our new home (without much success) and needed to make running repairs.

It was one of those moments when I wished I carried a pocket knife, but Mr JD from Ellesmere Port was quick to the rescue. He was out walking his dog and the chance conversation that ensued revealed him to be an inveterate collector of the pocket knives.

He confessed he owned "about two dozen" vintage, veteran and modern pocket knives, although with his wife present, I suspect that figure might have been conservative.

His enthusiasm was infective. This was a man who appreciated quality engineering, quirky design and the kind of ingenuity that is possible only by producing objects by hand.

His knife was no way mass-produced. The joy of it was its ease of use. Aside from being entirely safe, since it could be opened only by depressing the button, it can also be opened with just one hand -- an attribute that is highly regarded among aficionados.

In its own quiet way, it was also very simple but very beautiful.

A reader of this column, he said I ought to write about collecting penknives and he was right -- it's a fascinating subject - although I do so trusting that safety and proper use goes without saying.

The folding knife has been around since Roman times. Excavations have uncovered charming examples with elaborately carved handles but which lack the spring to keep the blade in place.

The pocket knife, with the blade folding into the handle, was invented in the 16th century and was originally used for putting the points on the business end of quill pens.

Sheffield has been the home of cutlery for almost a thousand years. Edward III (1312-1377) listed a Sheffield knife in his will when entombed in the Tower of London and in the 1380s, Chaucer wrote about a Sheffield knife in the Reeves Tale.

By the 1580s, Sheffield penknives were being recommended as the first choice for schoolmasters in 'The Writing Schoolmaster'

A breakthrough came in 1740 when a new technique was developed to produce high quality steel.

Sheffield clockmaker Benjamin Huntsman wanted better clock springs and after years of experimenting in secret, he perfected a process to produce crucible steel.

The invention turned the city into a world leader in the production of high quality cutlery.

Huntsman's crucible steel was also ideal for both the blades and the springs of pocket knives and other highly specialised instruments such as surgical knives and cutthroat razors.

Very quickly an industry within an industry began to boom and Sheffield pocket knives -- as well as much larger sheathed hunting knives (the subject of a column to itself) -- were being exported across the globe.

From perfecting the simple folding knife with a spring and one blade, cutlers realised that more springs could be added, together with more blades and various tools fitted at each end of the springs.

The ingenuity of skilled cutlers meant there was tremendous scope for variation and as a demonstration of the cutlers´ skills, penknives grew ever more complex, including such things as button hooks, leather punches, nail files, scissors, magnifying glasses, toothpicks, cigar cutters and so on.

Delicate penknives, meanwhile, were also produced in a vast range of styles and varieties catering for almost every user and occasion.

Some of the most dainty were intended for use in a lady's boudoir, or her portmanteau, while others, often smaller still, and often in silver, had a hook so they could be hung from a chatelaine -- the collection of everyday necessities a woman wore hanging from a belt.

Their purpose was manifold but most often the blade would be needed, for example, to open a new bottle of perfume, while a tiny corkscrew was there to pull the corks from medicine or eau de toilette.

There were pocket knives for anglers, sportsman, gardeners, smokers, Boy Scouts, motorists, handymen and even one specifically for the champagne drinker. In the 1920s, this latter nickel silver device contained two blades, a champagne hook, buttonhook and corkscrew and retailed at eight shillings and sixpence (42½ pence).

Social standing of their owners

Another popular collecting area is fruit knives. French cutlers were first to produce folding knives with silver blades which, unlike their steel counterparts, were not stained by fruit acid.

Since fruit was a luxury in the 19th century, so the knives used to cut it reflected the social standing of their owners.

In their simplest form, most had a single hallmarked folding blade and a handle made from mother of pearl, usually engraved with motifs reflecting the purpose of the knife.

At the other end of the price spectrum, the very finest examples had either silver or gold blades decorated with bright-cut engraving, often with trailing vines.

Beautifully executed handles were decorated with inlays of gold and semi-precious stones and many can be found engraved with their owner's initials.

Prices start from a few pounds for a simple example to several hundred for the best.

Fruit knives with little added extras are particularly sought after. Look for those in their original cases with long, thin pointed blades intended to remove pips from fruit, while examples with a Chester hallmark are more valuable because of their relative rarity (Chester's assay office closed in 1962).

Some of the most charming and desirable penknives are those primitive examples which look to be home-made. Chances are they were not. Rather they are the products of small private firms or blacksmiths.

Among the most amusing are novelties such as one shaped as a woman's leg, while a miniature folding sewing knife has the handle carved in the shape of a geisha.

Others are big and workmanlike and have handles made from various woods, horn or bone, sometimes carved to resemble staghorn. They are the kind of penknives to be found lying in the bottom of tool boxes in auctions or at car boot sales.

The 20th century saw an increase in the use of penknives for commemorative occasions, particularly coronations, and as souvenirs from seaside resorts. Most use "new" plastics such as ivorine which can imitate ivory or dark wood and fool the uninitiated.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a huge upsurge in interest among collectors and many of the companies founded in Sheffield to produce traditional penknives continue to thrive today making limited edition examples intended solely for the collectors' market.

Such examples in their plush cases are intended as cabinet pieces, not as working tools.

The collector of old penknives should buy only those examples whose folding mechanisms are still in good crisp working order and whose blades are complete and free of damage.

A blade that does not reach the end of its slot means it has been broken and ground back to its original shape sometime in the past.

The more decorative knives with a greater number of blades and tools are more valuable than plain, simple examples, but prices remain affordable.

Rusty blades can be cleaned with some fine wire wool and penetrating oil and then polished with soft paper.

The mechanism should be kept free with a careful application of refined oil (not WD 40), while handles in natural material should be treated with a little almond oil.

With a little care, grandfather's prized penknife -- the one you saw him use to cut his plug tobacco -- will give you a lifetime of service before you hand it on to your grandchild.

Pictures show, top:
Plenty of choice: A page from the 1926-27 Army and Navy Co-operative Society catalogue showing just a fraction of their range of pocket knives - these specifically for "Yachting and Boys". The nickel-silver champagne knife is bottom right.

Below, left to right:

This ivory novelty penknife is modelled as a classical lady wearing a cloak and holding a bird, perhaps indicating that it was intended as a quill pen cutter. It's worth £80-120

Fruity fun: Left a late 19th century silver and mother of pearl fruit knife with its original soft suede case and pipping blade. It's worth £80-120. Right a plainer version, the handle engraved with male and female portraits. However, the crack just above them reduces its value to £30-40

An ivory novelty penknife in the form of a shapely female leg. It was made in about 1870 and is worth £60-100

lady knifefruit knivesleg knife


Thursday, 20 October 2005

Trafalgar gold medal sells for record £248,800

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Trafalgar medal
What's more valuable - a medal awarded to Admiral Lord Nelson, or one awarded to the captain he urged to kiss him as he lay dying from a sniper's bullet. Read the account of the Christie's sale here.

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Thursday, 13 October 2005

Antique English glasses fine enough to toast a Scottish Prince

by Christopher Proudlove©
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The 'Spottiswoode' Amen glass

The UK drinks industry is going through tough times and corporate collections of fine art and antiques are suffering as a result. First, Allied Domecq, makers of Harveys Bristol Cream sherry, auctioned off the contents of its renowned museum in Bristol city centre and now word reaches me that the makers of Drambuie are about to do the same.

This is not necessarily all bad news. When any collection is dispersed, it means collectors get the chance to bid for and buy objects that might otherwise have never come on to the market.

The downside is that those same collectors, researchers and simply people who are interested in the subject are denied the opportunity to see groups of objects together in one place that tell a story or shed more light on a particular facet of our lives.

Wisely, or perhaps fortunately, the suits behind the Drambuie sale have realised that part of their corporate collection is sacrosanct and should never be split up, namely objects directly related to Drambuie's historic links with the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

Tradition has it that when Prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was defeated in his bid to regain the British throne from the Hanoverians, he was saved by the MacKinnon family.

The grateful Prince rewarded them with the only thing in his possession: a secret recipe for the drink we now know as Drambuie.

As a result, over the years the company has collected an important group of Jacobite art and memorabilia which hopefully will end up in a Scottish museum.

In the meantime, an exhibition of the pick of the Jacobite collection has just completed a tour of the US.

The same exhibition has opened in London, the only place it will be seen in Britain, at the Fleming Collection in Berkeley Street. It runs until December 17.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Royal House of Stuart, 1688-1788, consists of more than 100 works, including portraits, miniatures, ceramics, silver and gold medals and, appropriately, engraved drinking glasses. It is the glasses that are most fascinating.

First, a quick history lesson. James, the Roman Catholic son of Charles I, was crowned James II in 1685 but his Catholic policies were opposed by the Protestants,

After three years of unrest, they forced him to flee for his life to France, replacing him with the Protestants William III of Orange and his wife, Mary, James II's daughter who became joint monarchs.

The belief that James was the legitimate ruler became known as Jacobitism (from Jacobus or Iacobus, Latin for "James") a real stronghold of which was the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

James II spent the remainder of his life under the protection of King Louis XIV of France, but his son James Francis Edward Stuart and grandson Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) attempted to restore the Jacobite line.

In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan in a last desperate bid to overthrow the reigning Hanoverian family but was defeated by the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Having fled with a few loyal supporters to the Isle of Skye, he was sheltered by Captain John MacKinnon of Strathaird, a loyal Jacobite who clearly saved his life.

Before leaving for France, the prince rewarded MacKinnon with his secret recipe for his personal liqueur which the MacKinnon family continued to brew for their own consumption throughout the 19th century.

The treasured recipe was handed down over the generations until 1893 when the brew went on sale at the Broadford Inn on Skye with the name Drambuie or in the Gaelic "An Dram Buidheach" meaning "the drink that satisfies".

The rest is history, as they say, and the liqueur - marketed with the slogan "Gift of the Prince" - became the required after-dinner tipple with coffee and cigars.

By their nature, Jacobite societies were officially outlawed and meetings had to be held in secret with discovery resulting in imprisonment and ultimately execution for treason.

Despite this, supporters met often, the meeting always ending with a toast over a bowl of water, signifying the "King o'er the sea," or James III, as James Edward Stuart styled himself.

As a result of the need for absolute secrecy, the Jacobites signalled their support with objects that were either small and easy to conceal, or decorated with intentionally obscure symbolic designs and allusive inscriptions.

'An abiding tartan-clad iconography'

Robin Nicholson, curator of the Drambuie collection, said: "These works demonstrate how the Jacobites, in creating an abiding tartan-clad iconography, invented a myth so large that it came to eclipse the reality of their adored leader, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' while he was still alive".

The most common symbol of Jacobite support is the rose, shown in full bloom to represent the English throne, and often with two buds on the stem representing the two Stuart sons of James III - Prince Charles Edward and Prince Henry, the Cardinal Duke of York.

These devices are most often found on Jacobite glasses which are sometimes also engraved with the word "Fiat" (meaning "let it be") or "Redeat", "Redi", or "Revirescit" (suggesting hope that the Prince will return).

The bowls of some Jacobite glasses are engraved with a likeness of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but the rarest and most important are those known as "Amen" glasses, so called because they are engraved with two to four verses of the Jacobite hymn ending with the word Amen.

Fewer than 40 such glasses are known to exist, some examples have been dismissed as copies over the years as knowledge of the subject has increased.

The forgeries surfaced as prices for Jacobite glasses spiralled to heady heights. They were principally executed on genuine Georgian glasses and were so convincing that doubt has been cast on the authenticity of a number of genuine examples.

The tour-de-force among a group of 58 engraved drinking glasses in the London exhibition is the Spottiswoode "Amen" Glass, c. 1745, (pictured) an unequalled example of free-hand engraving, drawn trumpet bowl and spiral air twist stem.

The glass takes its name from having spent most of the 19th-century stored in a special box in a cupboard under the stairs of Spottiswoode House in Melrose.

Not surprisingly, the Protestant supporters of William and Mary marked their allegiance with engraved glasses and other objects of their own.

The glasses show William riding a horse, and when George I became king in 1714, glasses decorated with a Hanoverian white horse and a white heraldic rose became popular.

The London exhibition, which is free, is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am-5.30pm.

The Drambuie Collection of Scottish Art will be sold in January 2006 in Edinburgh by city auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull.

Both are something of a must-see for ardent collectors.

Pictures show, top:
The 'Spottiswoode' Amen glass, bearing the words of the Jacobite anthem, the motto 'Amen' and the crown and cipher of King James III c.1745

Below: A Group of Jacobite Glasses c. 1750; a miniature portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart 1734 by Antonio David and an engraved Jacobite 'Loving Cup' for communal toasts c.1750. All pictures courtesy The Drambuie Collection

A Group of Jacobite GlassesMiniature portrait by Antonio David HIGH RESAn engraved Jacobite 'Loving Cup'

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