Monday, 20 February 2006

Collectors crave vintage Osborne Ivorex wall plaques

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Mr Pickwick

Things we take for granted, number 42: Bossons plaster of paris wall plaques, more correctly termed character masks. Okay, so perhaps they're not antiques in the true sense of the word, but they are collectable. And they are collected, particularly in the United States and Australia, where rarities can make hundreds of pounds. See them at a car boot sale, where they rarely cost above a few quid, and they are instantly dismissible. Indeed, the Business Manager (Mrs P) remembers using a damaged one discarded by her mother to chalk out the squares in the playground for a game of hopscotch.

It doesn't help that we were both born in the town where they were made (Congleton, in South Cheshire) and knew quite a few of the ladies who painted the lifelike caricatures of such characters as Buccaneer, Smuggler, Syrian, and Arab, at least one of which I can remember hanging on the wall in my childhood home. I also knew Ray Bossons, the son of a founder of the company who took it over on the death of his father, and I remember the sadness in the town when the factory closed in 1996. It was a personal loss for Ray and he died three years later, although by then well into his retirement.

However, one thing I didn't know was that Bossons also made wall plaques like the ones illustrated here. In fact, they are virtually identical to those made by the Osborne Company, under the brand name Ivorex. It turns out that when the Kent company founded in 1899 by Arthur Osborne ceased trading in 1965, entrepreneur Ray Bossons stepped in and bought the assets and the rights to produce Ivorex products of his own. He even tried to continue employing Osborne decorators to paint Bossons plaques, but in practice the idea proved untenable.

The result is a fascinating quandary for today's collectors drawn to the amazingly detailed and decorative wall plaques, some of which fetch serious money today. Point is, some of these wall plaques appear in three variations: the originals made by Osborne; copies made by Bossons but painted in Kent and copies produced entirely in South Cheshire.

Telling Osborne originals from Bossons copies is easy: all the former are marked with the AO (for Arthur Osborne) copyright mark, usually on the bottom right front of a plaque and various trademarks on the reverse, while Bossons removed the AO copyright mark and used self adhesive labels instead of the trademarks on the back. Being able to spot the difference in the colour palettes used is down to comparing the two side-by-side and plenty of experience.

Arthur Osborne was born in Ospringe, a village near Faversham, Kent, the son of a book and print seller in 1855. The boy showed early artistic talent and went to South Kensington Art School in London. He subsequently emigrated to Canada, but settled in America, working as a designer for the J and J G Low Art Tile Comapny of Boston, Massachusetts.

He married there but returned to Kent in 1898 to found the Osborne Ivorex company producing three-dimensional plaques and other decorative plaster of paris knickknacks in a business that went on to thrive and become a major employer, particularly paintresses drawn from the local population.

I am grateful to collector John Smith, whose Southampton home is a shrine to Osborne Ivorex plaques, for supplying the pictures for this week's column. John points out that values can vary a great deal. An average price for an 11 x 6 plaque is about £35, while the large Pickwick plaque illustrated averages around £500 and the rarer Death of Nelson ranges from £800 to £2000. The smaller plaques average around £25, although he adds that the least he has paid is 50p at a car boot sale.

"Incredibly Osborne made very low batches of some scenes in the hopes of securing a larger order in the future so we don't really know what is the rarest piece. If he only made a dozen of a particular scene they may never see the light of day again, and it is believed that he actually carried out some private commissions of one-off' pieces," so keep an eye out!

Read more on John Smith's website at
Among the most popular products were those depicting well known tourist destinations. Working from picture postcards from around the world, Osborne produced highly detailed copies carved into clay which were used as masters to make moulds for the plaster of paris. After painting, the plaques were given their distinctive "ivory" finish by dipping them in the heart paraffin wax which was then buffed to give them a dull sheen.

Subjects covered included historical places of interest, such as cathedrals, castles and tourist destinations from both the UK and overseas; the birthplace or home of notable individuals such as Shakespeare; a range of characters and scenes from Dickens, fairytales and other moments in literature; portraits of famous people and many more. Today's collector has plenty of scope. It is thought that well over 800 different subjects were covered.

At the height of their popularity, it is said that around 45,000 pieces left the factory annually with thousands being shipped abroad weekly to meet demand. Although copyrighted, the products were copied ruthlessly, notably by those named "IvorArt" but they lacked quality and were a poor imitation.

Labour and material shortages, rising costs and a dwindling market during the Second World War proved to be a major hurdle for the company and Arthur Osborne's death in 1943 heralded the end of the company. His daughter, Blanche, managed to continue production but it eventually ceased trading and closed in 1965.

Pictures show, top:
"Mr Pickwick addressing the members of The Pickwick Club - The proudest moment of his existence", an Osborne Ivorex plaque sold recently for £520

Below, left to right:
The Rows, Chester. Bossons' version of this Osborne Ivorex plaque is virtually identical, apart from the Bossons label on the back. Towards the end of their Ivorex production Bossons did 'adjust' the colours of their plaques to their own taste, possibly to brighten up the scenes for modern consumers

The Osborne Ivorex plaque entitled "A Welsh tea party" - just right for tourists to the region

Conwy Castle and bridge, an Osborne Ivorex plaque today worth around £35

ChesterWelsh ladiesConwy Castle


Friday, 10 February 2006

How to Buy and Sell Antiques - the guidebook for the aspiring dealer

I've never fancied becoming a dealer, the life is too precarious. But if I ever change my mind, the first thing I'd do is buy a copy of the newly-updated How to Buy and Sell Antiques, claimed by the publishers as the only book which covers how to make and save money buying antiques and collectables.

The guide was written by dealer and TV antiques expert Fiona Shoop, who will be known to fans of such UK TV shows as Cash in the Attic, Everything Must Go and Boot Sale Challenge.

Fiona draws on her 23 years of experience in the trade to teach people how it's done, highlighting the tricks of the trade and listing some of the common and costly mistakes that newcomers make.

Buying and selling antiques is an increasingly popular pastime, the book says, particularly with the rise of online dealing and many people find it can develop into viable business opportunity.

Divided into easy-to-use segments, the book is an easy but informative read, full of facts and a surprising amount of humour.

It covers:

* What to buy and sell
* Where to buy and how much to pay
* Where and how to sell
* Using the internet
* Doing it properly – the paperwork and the payback

How to Buy and Sell Antiques is published by How To Books Ltd. and is available at £14.99 in major bookshops and online retailers.


Watch out - fake antique silver about, says London Assay Office

The London Assay Office, where all silver has to be hallmarked as pure before it can be sold, took the unusual step this week of issuing a warning following the appearance on the market of a number of fake spoons.

It appears that a number of auctioneers outside London received consignments from one vendor who wanted to sell a number of small collectors' items including trefid, caddy and double-ended medicine spoons.

The spoons were in unusually good condition but had hallmarkeds struck back to front or in the wrong place. Chemicals might also have been used to enhance the surface colour of the metal.

The testing and marking of jewellery and silverware to guarantee the precious metal content of an article has been carried out since 1300 and this, arguably the first form of quality control, is taken incredibly seriously.

The most common hallmarking scams use counterfeit punches or involve the transfer of genuine hallmarks by cutting them from an antique article and forging them in to a more modern one. Both are offences under the 1973 Hallmarking Act.

The relevant Trading Standards authorities have been informed and in an advertisement in the dealers' bible, The Antiques Trade Gazette, the Assay Office warns "extra caution should be exercised if you are offered any spoon or serving pieces for sale, unless the provenance is irrefutable".

Anyone who believes they may have come across similar items is asked to report them to the Deputy Warden, Assay Office in London, Goldsmiths' Hall, Gutter Lane, London EC2V 8AQ, Telephone 020 7606 8971.


Antique Valentine's Day gift - hold it to your ear and hear the sea

by Christopher Proudlove©
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If it's true that sailors have one in every port, then an awful lot of young ladies will be looking forward to next Tuesday with high expectation. If you need reminding, it's Valentine's Day and woe betide the lover who fails to send a token of affection to the one who is loved.

Tradition has it that February 14 is the day on which the birds choose their mates. Folklore also decrees that if a maiden sees a robin flying overhead on Valentine's Day, she will marry a sailor, so she might well be the recipient of of one of the love tokens illustrated here.

These intricate boxed collections of gorgeous South Sea shells, each one delicately arranged in symmetrical patterns, were crafted by lovestruck sailors during the long months away from home and apart from their sweethearts.

Sorry, that's another myth.

Valentine's Day has always been big business, a walk down any High Street will prove the point. Shops are crammed with cards, trinkets, jewellery and other fripperies, in both good taste and bad, all designed to separate the gullible from their cash.

These so-called "sailor's shell Valentines" are the 19th century equivalent, except that they are extraordinarily attractive, desirable and highly collected. They're also expensive these days with some of the finest fetching £8,000-10,000. But they weren't made by sailors.

Many wrongly assert that shell Valentines were made by lonely tars on board ship during their free time. Instead, their manufacture was a cottage industry in Barbados and the West Indies in the 1800s when islanders hit on the idea of turning the shells that abounded on their coasts into souvenirs for travellers.

In their day, these eye-catching trinkets were simply collections of colourful shells, but over time the entrepreneurial islanders realised that by including romantic messages and pink shell heart motifs, they were turned into love tokens.

Shells were arranged to spell out sentiments such as "Forget Me Not"; "When This You See, Remember Me" and "Forever and Ever", although others simply declare themselves "A Gift from Barbados".

Ship's compass

Their construction is broadly similar. The intricate decorations of literally thousands of the tiny shells were protected by sheet of glass and set into shallow octagonal mahogany boxes acting as a frame. The box resembles the cases in which a ship's compass would be kept.

They were sold separately, or hinged together to form a closed box. These so-called double Valentines are among the most desirable. They were made so that when closed, the shells were protected from the light and have thus retained their vibrant colours. Single examples in contrast have over the years been bleached by exposure to ultraviolet rays which can have a serious effect on their value.

The appearance of these shells designs coincided with a period in the early 19th century when European collectors became fascinated by the natural sciences. It was a time when Victorian sitting rooms were decorated with glass cases containing butterflies, stuffed birds and fossils and the shells, in their ready-made display cases, the Valentines were a perfect addition.

At this time Barbados was a regular stopping point for whalers and trading vessels which stopped there to take on supplies or to deliver cargo. With an eye on the main chance, sailors and possibly even their captains would have either collected shells for themselves or bought them from the islanders to sell on once they had returned home.

The exotic seashells would have been well received by the growing middle classes and soon it became an amusing pastime, particularly among the ladies, to arrange them into elegant floral découpage to be shown off under glass domes or hung on the wall.

Good sailor's Valentines have become increasingly rare. Average examples can be had for £600-800, but exceptional examples can be 10 times that amount. Vibrant colours and attractive arrangements are the most sought after and beware double Valentines that have become separated. Holes in the outer case where hinges would have been fastened are a tell-tale sign.

It is also difficult to be certain that you're buying something old. Whilst I am not aware that the things are being faked, very many sailor's Valentines are younger than they appear. Close examination of the wood helps to a degree, and modern adhesives are easy to spot. As always, buy from reputable sources ... and give with love.

Pictures show, top: One half of a double Valentine, this Victorian example was clearly intended as a love token because of the heart-shaped motif at its centre

Below, left to right: The wooden cases of sailor's Valentines make natural frames for the display and also served to protect the shells during the long distances they travelled. They also protect the delicate shells from the effects of light. This example is worth £3,000-5,000

This geometric design is made up of tiny snail shells. It dates from the late 19th century and was probably intended as a natural history specimen

Larger exotic shells are a feature of this design, made more desirable because it is a double Valentine. It's worth £4,000-6,000


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Wednesday, 8 February 2006

eBay in the dock over fake Tiffany jewellery

Having come this close at a collectors' fair to buying a "Tiffany" silver bangle that turned out to be a fake, it was heartening to learn that the U.S. jewellery manufacturer is suing eBay which is surely the source of most if not all the dud pieces currently circulating.

We were searching out a graduation gift for the older of the two young apprentices and the bangle would have been just right. However, we spotted that the signature turquoise box it came in just wasn't up to scratch and that was enough to sound the alarm.

The stallholder felt as cheated as we did. She had purchased the bangle in good faith from a visitor to the fair, and in all honesty, the bangle itself looked entirely right. If it hadn't been for the fact that the printed Tiffany name on the box was smudged and printed skewed, we'd have handed over our cash and left none the wiser.

It turns out that in 2004, Tiffany secretly purchased 200 items off eBay, and discovered that three out of four pieces were fakes.

An eBay spokesman said: "We never take possession of the goods sold through eBay, and we don't have any expertise. We're not clothing experts. We're not car experts, and we're not jewellery experts. We're experts at building a marketplace and bringing buyers and sellers together."

If Tiffany wins the case, which is expected to go to trial by the end of the year, eBay should brace itself for a rash of copycat suits.

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Antique Dogs of Fo - a legend for you to collect

by Christopher Proudlove©
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pot dogs

So, welcome to the Year of the Dog and if, like us, you marvel at the celebrations for the Chinese New Year, you'll know the highlight of the colourful spectacle. Performed as a prayer for a good harvest and household safety for the year, a troupe of dancers parade the huge mask of a mythical beast's head and its long body through the streets leaping and prancing to bring the fearsome, writhing creature to life.

But is it a lion, or a dog, or neither? I'll leave that for someone more knowledgeable than me.

The origin of the Chinese lion-dog is shrouded in antiquity and be traced back to the Han Dynasty which lasted 400 years from 206 BC to AD 220. Although not native to China, the lion became a Chinese emblem of valour, courage, energy and wisdom, while in Chinese mythology it was believed that tian gou xing, the "heavenly dog star", devoured the moon at the time of an eclipse.

In Buddhist religion the lion is sacred and was sometimes offered as a sacrifice. The Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived about 2,500 years ago in India, is referred to as Lion of the Shakya and is depicted seated on a lion throne.

The Chinese word for Buddha is Fo and when Buddhist stories of the religious significance of lions reached China, where the animal was unknown, devotional statues of it were modelled after the country's native dogs. Thus they became known as "Dogs of Fo" and were placed either side of the entrance to temples as protectors of sacred Buddhist temples.

The ferocious mythical creatures, carved in bronze or stone, were quickly introduced into Chinese art to symbolise courage, strength and defence of the law. Subsequently, they were quickly adopted as guardians of tombs, government buildings, businesses and homes to ward off evil spirits and exclude demons.
Based on lunar rather than solar cycles, the Chinese calendar is the world's oldest, having measured time for more than 4,500 years. The Chinese New Year festival began last Sunday with the new moon, and will end 15 days later, on the night of the full moon.
As their popularity grew, the dogs were sculpted in porcelain, cloisonné and precious metal as ornaments for the home, the finest often given as gifts to the emperor in the hope of receiving favour.

The dogs are always found in pairs, male and female, their distinctly different modelling making it easy to identify their gender.

The male, also known as the Celestial Dog and the Happiness Dog, was intended to stand on the right and is modelled with his right paw resting on a globe representing his feeling the pulse of the earth. The female is almost identical but is always modelled with her left paw playing with or resting on her small cub, newly hatched from an egg. This symbolises continuity of empire.

The male is said to guard the structure, while the female protects those living or working inside. Their mischievous, almost devilish faces hide a ruthless power.

One of several stories attached to Dogs of Fo concerns a famous alchemist and queller of demons by the name of Chodoryo. When one of his pupils was threatened by the servants of one such demon, who had been turned into tigers for the purpose, Chodoryo countered by creating a giant lion which, in the magic battle that ensued, attacked the tigers and made them turn tail.

Legend also has it that Dogs of Fo were not averse to throwing their cubs from a high rock into a deep abyss as a test of their powers of resistance. Those that were smashed were too weak, while those that climbed out were considered good stock.

Despite this cruel side to their nature, objects decorated with Dogs of Fo and their cubs are representative of happy family life. Interestingly, the creatures are also depicted in a tender playful mood, whereupon they resemble the Pekingese dog of today.

As China opened up and began trading with the West in the 19th century, Dogs of Fo were among the many decorative exports that were picked up by collectors in Europe. As a result, they were reproduced by manufacturers abroad, notably this country's porcelain factories, and they remain popular today.

Pictures show, top: A large pair of Dogs of Fo, made in about 1680 and crisply modelled in blanc-de-Chine, the name given by European collectors to the undecorated hard paste true porcelain made in China and much prized in the West. They are worth £60,000-80,000, although 19th century versions can be had for a fraction of the cost

Below: These silver Dogs of Fo were made in Portugal and decorated with hardstones – their orange eyes being particularly menacing. They’re worth £3,000-4,000

silver dogs


Thursday, 2 February 2006

Louis Wain's lucky pot cats now coveted collectors' items

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Lucky Roadhog Cat ...

Trash, or treasure? Certainly, the weird pottery vase illustrated here is not everyone's cup of tea, but fortunately, the family who came across it in the home of a relative who had just died were taking no chances. No one liked it but instead of consigning it to the nearest charity shop, they had the good sense to call in an auctioneer for an expert opinion.

To the untrained eye, the vase is of no consequence. With its garish colours, weird design and apparent uselessness, it's easy to dismiss the vase as trash. But the presence of a Louis Wain signature makes all the difference. As any collector could tell you, Wain was the man who drew cats and his paintings and prints are much in demand.

However, only dedicated collectors of Wainiana are aware that the gifted artist was also responsible for designing a small number of ceramic objects which are now particularly highly prized. When he came under the hammer, the so-called Lucky Roadhog Cat set the saleroom buzzing.

The vase had been the talk of the trade immediately before the sale and there were four commission bids and a further four bidders on the telephones, each hoping to take ownership. It was purchased by a private London buyer for a staggering £3,600 after a tough battle with a dealer bidding by phone.

A fluke, an aberration? Not a bit of it. I'm not clever enough to know how many examples of Louis Wain-designed ceramics were ever produced -- I'm not even sure which pottery manufactured them, indeed if anyone does -- but there cannot be many still in circulation. Even fewer will be in perfect condition as this one was, still retaining its original retail label adhered to the back of the figure.

Interestingly, however, the recent Age of Jazz exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool included another example: a model of a seated cat, its right paw raised to its face which is turned towards the viewer.

The exhibition, which closed last October, was a celebration of British ceramics produced during the Art Deco period and was dominated by Clarice Cliff. Promoted as "showcasing the beautiful, the brash and the Bizarre", Clarice's contribution was noted by the use of the word bizarre with a capital B, since that is how her unique pottery was trademarked.

Louis Wain's crazy ceramic creations were no less bizarre and it is interesting to speculate (for I am speculating) whether or not they were manufactured at the Wilkinson or Newport potteries in Burslem, Staffordshire, where Clarice and her Bizarre Girls made their fame and fortune.

An exhibition note from the Walker sheds further light on Wain's pot cats. It read: "This cat's geometric and angular form shows the possible influence of Cubism - a style of painting which began around 1908 and was led by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). This could be a serious use of the Cubist style or a 'tongue-in-cheek' jokey reference."

A somewhat crude, black-painted earthenware figure called "The Laughing Cat" made in about 1910 has a printed backstamp for Royal Pottery Staffordshire, Wilkinson Ltd, England. Although this model is clearly in the Louis Wain style -- it has a manic grin, wide green-painted eyes and sports a bright blue bowtie -- its shape is far from Cubist. If anyone can shed any light on this, I would be very interested to hear from them.

Incidentally, The Laughing Cat has proved to be a good investment. The model changed hands for around £700 three years ago. In a pre-Christmas London auction, an example was knocked down for £1,260.

Louis Wain was a serious, tragic artist but his comic humour flows from his work and brings a smile to anyone seeing it -- cat lover or not. I suspect his "Cubist cats" were poking fun at Mr Picasso and the art establishment. But they also hint strongly at the mental illness that ultimately saw Wain committed to an asylum.

Among my own small group of Louis Wain treasures is a side plate (also illustrated), probably from a child's tea service, decorated in a hand-painted enamels with two cats flying an aeroplane. It was produced by the Paragon China Company and according to the somewhat faint backstamp, it comes from the Tinker Tailor Series. Wain illustrated a children’s book with the same title, which sells for upwards of £250.

I bought the plate in an antique shop in my home town more than 30 years ago for a few pounds and I've not seen anything like it since. It is interesting to speculate on what it's worth now -- perhaps I should call in an auctioneer!
So who was Louis Wain?
He was born in Clerkenwell, East London in 1860, the only boy among six children, the youngest of whom certified as insane, and admitted to an asylum at the age of 30. Little is known about his father, but his mother was a textile designer in Leek, Staffordshire. The boy probably took after his mother and his artistic ability was soon noticed.

He was sent to the West London School of Art and taught there briefly but his father died when Wain was aged 20 and he was left to support the family. Hoping to earn more as a freelance graphic artist, his first published drawing appeared in the December 10 1881 edition of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and a year later, he joined the staff full-time.

Wain's "discovery" of cats was born out of tragedy. In 1884, aged 23, he married his sisters' governess, Emily Richardson, who was 10 years his senior, but the happiness was short-lived: she contracted cancer and was soon confined to her bed.

One of Emily's companions during her illness was a black and white kitten called Peter and Wain spent many hours sketching the pet to amuse his ailing wife.

It was some time before Wain was persuaded to show his pictures of Peter, but Sir William Ingram, proprietor of the Illustrated London News, was so impressed, he published two of them. This led to the breakthrough Wain needed.

In 1886, he drew kitten illustrations for "Madam Tabby's Establishment", followed by "A Kitten's Christmas Party", which appeared in the Illustrated London News the same year.

It brought Wain overnight fame and commissions flooded in from around the world. Sadly, though, his wife never shared in the success. She died after much suffering in 1887.

It was some years before the true Louis Wain cat emerged, but when his cartoon felines began to indulge in human pursuits - walking on hind legs and sporting monocles, fancy neckties and carrying walking sticks - the change was complete.

At about the same time, the camera was beginning to make an impression, both among artists and the public, who wanted cheap images to brighten their homes.

When photographers hit on the idea of using animals in their work, public opinion was split between acclaim and outcry over cruelty. Wain's pictures had all the appeal and none of the criticism.

Wide public acclaim had its pressures, however. The death of his wife had a profound effect on Wain and alone, he was a poor financial manager. He also became a target for cranks and senders of begging letters.

Wain developed a fixation for bizarre business investment ideas including one to breed a spotted cat.

His financial position worsened and then, in 1917, his sister Caroline died from the virulent influenza epidemic of that year. Again, this deeply affected his sanity.

He was subsequently certified insane and, in June 1924, he was taken to the pauper ward of the local lunatic asylum. He had come to believe he was himself a cat. The diagnosis was schizophrenia.

However, he was later rescued by a publisher who organised a public fund to transfer Wain to a private hospital. It was there that he completed some of his most exciting and daring works in watercolour and crayon, many of which Wain gave away to his nurses and fellow patients, a far cry from the days when he was using sketches to meet unpaid bills. He died in 1939.

Experts in Wain's pictures assert that it is possible to trace the progression of his fall into madness by the facial expressions of the cats he drew. The more wild-eyed and angry they looked, the more tortured was the artist's mind.

Certainly, it is possible to see the transition from sweet, sentimental and wide-eyed kittens in his early work to almost nightmarish subjects towards the end.

Today, anything bearing Wain's easily distinguishable signature commands large sums. A simple postcard can fetch upwards of £15 and a good children's book illustrated by him is worth £150 or more.

Prints make around £75-150 apiece, depending on quality, while pen and ink drawings - one of the artist's favourite mediums - are in the £500-£1,000 range. A good watercolour starts at £2,000, again depending on quality and subject matter.
Picture shows the so-call Lucky Roadhog Cat, discovered in a house and sold for £3,600. Click here for a slideshow of more Louis Wain crazy cats