Asian Antiques: Japanese Combs of the Edo Period

July 27th, 2010 by

The Japanese Edo period (named for the city that would later become Tokyo) began in 1600 and ended after 1868. This historical epoch was more or less defined by the rise of Tokyo as an urban center, and by a corresponding shift from a feudal agrarian culture to that of a city-oriented, expanding and cosmopolitan middle class.

This rapid cultural shift left behind many categories of now-collectable Asian antiques– tools, artwork and household items that remain to document the lifestyle of the times. Among Asian antiques aficionados, the Edo period is most often associated with woodcuts, calligraphy, inlay, and other evidence of this flourishing age for the arts, some of which may be covered in later postings. But for the moment, we’ll narrow our focus to one specific relic of the Edo period prized by collectors of Asian antiques—hair accessories.

Just prior to the peace and economic prosperity of the 17th century, the arts in general languished in Japan. Clothing styles and ornamentation were simple and indistinct, and women typically wore their hair loose or tied back with a length of string. But with the Edo expansion of wealth came a shift in lifestyle for both men and women, and hair arrangement among women became an increasingly elaborate expression of status and artistry.

The complicated coiffures of the Edo period were designed by elevating waxed tresses into one of several forms of chignon, or bun. The hair would then be fixed in place with variations of three items: The hairpin (kanzashi), the hair stick (kogai), and the comb (kushi). These three items structured the hairstyles that we often see depicted in Edo woodcuts today, such as the maru mage, a large bun worn by actresses or courtesans, or the shimada mage, an updo often adopted by stylish housewives. Some of these coiffures took so many hours to create that women would sleep with their heads propped up on a padded wooden stand at night in order to protect the style and keep it intact.

Pins, sticks and combs need not be kept in sets in order to be valuable, though of course a set is a welcome find, especially if the kogai and kushi are kept in an original box. But some collectors of Asian antiques have a preference for one of these things more so than the others, and indeed, there is so much to know and so much beauty and artistry in combs alone that an article dedicated to Edo period combs could be volumes long and still not cover the topic adequately.

A few things for a collector of kushi to keep an eye on: First, the shape of the comb. My favorite Edo period combs are wooden and half-moon shaped, sometimes lacquered, with the tines very close together. Second, the condition. Are the teeth intact? Does the handle show signs of wear? And third, the design. The handle, or curved side of the half-moon, often has a flat surface that bears detailing, such as intricate mother-of-pearl inlay in a landscape or floral pattern. The details of the design should ideally continue onto the spine of the comb. And in some beautiful examples, the design extends across the teeth of the comb as well. This is especially appealing in combs of horn or tortoiseshell, the other materials from which kushi are often carved.

By Erin Sweeney

Antiques as an Investment: Rewards, Risks, and What to Consider Before You Begin

July 23rd, 2010 by

So you’re considering the purchase of a beautiful and potentially valuable set of antique furniture, a piece of antique jewelry, or an antique toy, tool, or work of art. How do you proceed? We’ve all heard stories of items like these purchased for a few dollars and then sold later for five, ten, or a hundred times their initial cost. How realistic are these scenarios and what steps can you take to optimize your investment? How can you move forward while maintaining an acceptable level of risk?

There are two very important truths to bear in mind before you make your purchase. First, every antique is valued within its own market, and this market fluctuates in accordance with demand. The current value of an antique toy—say, a 1907 stuffed mohair teddy bear has little correlation with the value of an Asian antique vase from the 16th century. Collectors control the worth of each of these items, and collectors can be fickle. Rarity is not always a guarantee that an item will have value, and neither is a momentary spike in speculative interest (a surge of buyers who are drawn by the possible resale value of the item, not the item itself.)

Second, since this is the case, it is wisest to purchase an antique when you have a real and personal interest in owning that specific item. If you expect to enjoy the antique furniture or antique jewelry for its own sake, and would be happy to keep it for an indefinite period of time, this mitigates your level of risk.

A Few Tips for the Potential Investor:

Don’t spread a wide net. In-depth knowledge is important when investing in antiques, and the more specific your collection, the deeper your knowledge is likely to grow.

Know the difference between investing and speculating. Investing is long-term, researched, lower risk, and requires patience. Speculating often means buying an item that one has no long-term desire to own, intending instead to resell the item as quickly as possible for a profit. Speculation requires a keen eye set not just on the item itself, but on other buyers and collectors in order to gauge shifting levels of interest. Speculation requires strong nerves and a high tolerance for risk. Both investors and speculators benefit from in-depth and specific knowledge– For example, a skill in identifying provenance, an eye for antique furniture construction, or the ability to spot counterfeit components in the mechanism of an antique clock.

Remember the ten-to-fifteen percent rule: Most financial experts recommend keeping art and antiques within ten to fifteen percent of your investment portfolio.

Be aware that some antiques are easier targets for forgery than others. Forgeries tend to rise when an item becomes highly sought after by speculators. When an item seems to attract the interest of serious collectors only, counterfeits decrease.

And finally: Know yourself. Just as we’ve all experienced “buyer’s remorse”, there is a similar feeling that cuts in the other direction. “Non-buyer’s remorse” is more common in the antiques world than elsewhere, since antiques are one of a kind, and an opportunity to buy an item, once missed, may never come again. How high is your tolerance for either of these feelings? What items are you willing to pay a steep price for, and why? The heart of an antiques collector is a funny thing. In the antiques world, purchase decisions are frequently based on money, and just as frequently are based on factors that have nothing to do with money at all.

By Erin Sweeney

The Famous Antique Clocks of David Rittenhouse, Philadelphia Clockmaker

July 21st, 2010 by

If you mention the name David Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, your listeners will likely think first of the tree-lined streets of Rittenhouse Square, the neighborhood named in his honor. Born in 1732 and raised in Norritown, Rittenhouse developed an interest in astronomy and mathematics early in life and later became a major contributor to science and innovation in revolutionary America. He is most widely recognized as a Philadelphia inventor, surveyor, astronomer, friend to Benjamin Franklin, president of the American Philosophical Society, and the first director of the United States Mint.

But in the minds of collectors and enthusiasts of antique clocks, David Rittenhouse was first and foremost a clockmaker. Specifically, he was the designer and creator of two antique clocks which, in terms of innovation and complexity, are considered the most important clocks in the United States and among the most important in the world. Both clocks still exist and are still in Philadelphia– One of the two is owned by Penn Hospital, and the other belongs to Drexel University and is kept on display in a University picture gallery.

What makes these Rittenhouse clocks so valuable? A brief history of antique clocks and clock-making can provide a bit of context. Before the industrial revolution, when most Europeans and Americans lived an agrarian lifestyle, clocks were not a common personal possession. When it came to dividing and marking the hours of the day, a single clock in a town square could provide all that most people required. Between about 1663 and the mid 1800’s—prior to the rise of regular working hours and train schedules– household clocks in America were owned by the wealthy few. And before David Rittenhouse, most household clocks required weekly winding, had only an hour hand, and ran on relatively simple mechanisms driven by long counterweights that hung down below the clock face. Long pendulums required a distance between the clock face and the floor, and cases were often built around the mechanisms in order to hide them. These early antique clocks were called case clocks, long case clocks, or wags-on-the-wall. (The term “grandfather clock” didn’t come along until the 1800’s.) This was the general state of the household clock around 1742 when David Rittenhouse began turning his fascination with astronomy and mathematics to the purpose of clock-making.

A close look at the famous Drexel clock reveals some of the fascinating features unprecedented among the antique clocks of its time. For example, the main face contains not only an hour hand, but also minute and second hands, as well as a hand pointing to the month of the year. In addition, Rittenhouse designed the central face with a lunarium, a device that tracks the phases of the moon. To the left of the primary dial, a smaller face shows the location of the sun and moon at any given point the zodiac. The little moon in this dial actually rotates on its axis from a darker to a lighter side, in keeping with the phases of the real moon. Within the lunarium, a dial reveals the day of the month. The clock can play ten different chimes as well, according to its setting.

Most significantly, a miniature model of the solar system is set above the clock face—six planets orbiting a tiny sun in a circle about eight inches wide. This is called an orrery, and before the construction of the Drexel clock, Rittenhouse had already created two large and astonishingly accurate orreries, one of which had been donated to Rutgers University.

By the time he built the Drexel clock around 1773, his orreries had launched Rittenhouse’s reputation as a scientist. With his ingenious contributions to clock making, Rittenhouse established himself as a representative of the strong intellectual and innovative capacity of the colonies.

Both famous orreries and several antique clocks designed by Rittenhouse survive to this day, and some of them—like the Drexel clock—still work. With careful conservation, they may continue keeping accurate time well into the future.

Erin Sweeney


Antique Clocks: The Rolex Oyster and the Transition from Pocket to Wristwatches

July 21st, 2010 by

As any good horologist—a student of antique clocks and the history of timekeeping—can tell you, our relationship with time and the way we mark its passing are as flexible and transitory as any other aspect of our culture. Clocks, for example, have been in existence for a relatively short period considering the control they now exercise over our daily lives. In medieval Europe, clocks were useful to few outside of monasteries, and those clocks that did exist did not have faces, only chimes to ring the hours for ritual and prayer. In later years, clocks were designed with an hour hand that rotated around the clock face via gears turned by a slowly lowering weight. Clock faces were positioned in tall towers in order to provide room for the weights to drop. One clock at the top of a tower, inaccurate by a variance of an hour or more each day, could still adequately meet the timekeeping needs of an entire town. Galileo’s observations of pendulum movement in the late 1500’s led to smaller clocks that could eventually be placed inside of homes, at least by those wealthy enough to desire and afford them. And in the mid 1800’s, the industrial revolution brought the next rapid wave of changes to antique clocks and our dependence on timekeeping.

Mechanization and mass production began and were refined during this period. Factories rose. Lifestyles shifted away from the farm and toward standard working hours in offices and on assembly lines. Train schedules regulated commerce and industry. Timekeeping became more personal– and accuracy more important– then ever before. Enter the age of the pocket watch, a tiny clock with a minute and even a second hand that one could carry easily in one’s clothing. Pocket watches provided the ticking heartbeat of the American economy and lifestyle from the Gilded Age until the end of the 19th century, when, inevitably, they were replaced by an innovation even smaller and more convenient.

In approximately 1908, with World War I a decade away, clockmakers Hans Wildorf and Alfred Davis formed a partnership with a Swiss watchmaker who agreed to help them develop a clock mechanism small enough to wear on the wrist.

This small, wearable watch would be called the “Rolex”, a name chosen for its brevity and pronouncability in any language. The Rolex was not the first wristwatch in existence, but at the time it was the most famous on account of the durable “screw crown” mechanism that protected its gears from dust and damage. The most well known of all Rolex models would become the “Rolex Oyster”, which featured a double locking screw crown that kept the casing both airtight and watertight.  In an early marketing campaign, Wilsdorf asked the famous swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to wear an Oyster during one of her swims across the English Channel, and the campaign proved a success when the watch survived.

This success, combined with the popularity of wristwatches in general after their distribution to soldiers during the war, paved the way for the wristwatch to become the signature timepiece of the 20th century.

The history of clocks is a history of time itself, in a sense. And collecting antique clocks can be a fascinating hobby. Among collectors of antique clocks and watches, some of the most prized finds are early Rolexes and variations of the original Oyster. Santos Dumont, Patek, and Cartier are also names associated with rare early wristwatches, the most prized being ladies models as watches were first worn on the wrist by women as jewelry.

But a note for novice collectors of watches—beware! Keep in mind that watches, even more so than other antique clocks, are easy to counterfeit. Common forms of counterfeit work are wedded watches or “frankenwatches”, in which one or more of the mechanisms have been repaired or replaced while the other components remain original. These can be very difficult for non-experts to identify. Enjoy your adventures in horology, but if you intend to make a major investment in any antique clock or watch, be sure to have it reliably examined and appraised.

Erin Sweeney


Antique Toys: A Basic Field Guide to Three Rare Species of Antique Teddy Bear

July 20th, 2010 by

When Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that had been pursed to exhaustion and tied to a tree, he inspired Morris Michtom, a candy store owner, to design and sell a stuffed bear in his honor. This happened in 1902, and the Michtom bear with its jointed arms and legs would become the grand ancestor of one of the most popular and iconic toys in America. A century later, of course, it would also become a sought-after item among collectors of antique toys. But the Michtom bear shares this distinction with another bear, the Steiff bear, a toy designed and launched independently by German toymaker Richard Steiff at approximately the same time. Steiff was allegedly inspired by the sight of bears performing in a circus and wanted to create a toy that was jointed, soft, and somewhat human-shaped, part toy bear and part doll.

As all bear collectors—arctophiles—know, both Michtom and Steiff bears were a huge success. And since their popularity began to surge in 1904, any bear created before that year is considered one of the very first teddy bears in America, a rare and valuable find in the world of antique toys.

A wide diversity in teddy bear styles and features began to proliferate in 1906, and during the century that followed, many famous bear manufacturers rose and fell on the same waves that shaped American and European history. German bears, for example, experienced a reduced distribution to America during World War I. Only one German bear maker, Bing, managed to continue production during the war. This allowed British and American toymakers a new foothold in the teddy bear market, and when a certain British bear created by J. K. Farnell and Co inspired A. A. Milne to write the immortal Winnie-the-Pooh books in 1926, their ensuing popularity led Farnell bears to take their place beside Steiff and Bing bears as one of the most collectable antique toys of the present era.

So what sets Steiff, Bing, and Farnell Bears apart from other bears and from one another? As far as early Bing and Steiff bears are concerned, not much. In fact, Bing fought legally with Steiff over many early similarities between the two bears, including the famous button-in-ear feature. Early Bing bears had a metal plate attached to the ear with the letters GBN imprinted in a triangle. But after Steiff’s legal challenges, this identifier was called a “mark”, no longer a “button”, and it was moved under the left arm.

Both early Steiff and Bing bears had boot button eyes, usually black. Early Farnell bears had button eyes too, but later Farnell versions were distinguished by eyes made of amber colored glass. All three companies made their first bears with long, curved arms, spoon-shaped paws, and seams running up the front of the bear rather than the back. They also made their bears out of mohair and gave them features meant to resemble real bears, such as humped backs and longish, realistic-looking noses. Farnell bears often had stitched “claws” on the backs of their paws.

Among antique toys, Farnell, Steiff and Bing teddy bears are considered relatively safe items to collect since they are difficult to counterfeit. But always check the tags on your antique bear and keep an eye out for certain features like real mohair (not synthetic), velvet paw pads (rather than cotton), hand stitching, and wooden rather than metal or plastic joints. Also keep an eye out for “wood wool” stuffing, a kind of soft wood shaving. Even when the era of wool stuffing began in the 1920’s, Steiff, Bing, and Farnell were still using wood wool to stuff their bears’ heads.

Is your Steiff, Farnell or Bing bear valuable? As with all antique toys, the answer depends on the prevailing market and the condition of the bear. But recent buying guides have placed a Steiff jointed bear with a blank ear button, circa 1905, at about $1,225. Farnell and Bing mohair bears made before 1917 may be offered at similar prices. If you own a bear made during this period, or any plush antique toy, keep it safe. If you need to clean it, do so gently with a damp cloth. Better, have it cleaned by a professional. It’s easy enough to explain the popularity of the teddy bear—teddy bears are huggable! But this also makes them rare and valuable among antique toys, because they don’t tend to last long.

– Erin Sweeney

A Little Excitement at the MET – by Reyne Haines

January 18th, 2010 by

rodriguezThere is always something new to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It is certainly one of the most recognized museums in this country, offering some of the most important permanent and traveling exhibits for the entire world to see.

For years, the MET has displayed a work of art, thought to be by “The Workshop of Velázquez”.  The painting was donated to the museum in 1949.

The painting was darker than those painted at the hand of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez.  Therefore, the lead authority on Velázquez’s work in the 1960s downgraded the painting to be “The Workshop of” instead of by the master himself.  In 1979, the museum downgraded the painting as well.

Continue Reading…

Collecting Fine Art – Are You Art Smart? – by Reyne Haines

January 18th, 2010 by

kandinskySo you’ve decided to make the leap and collect art.  You read about Hugh Grant buying an Andy Warhol for $3 million and selling it later for a little less than $25 million and you think…this is for me!

Ok, maybe you aren’t a $3 million dollar buyer, but you have a few nickels to spend.  You head to New York City to visit with some of the top galleries.  As you enter your first shop, you are greeted by the gallery owner. He inquires about what “style” of art you are interested in.

Continue Reading…