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  decorative arts diary
by Meredith Mendelsohn  

Saint Louis 'swan' weight

Baccarat faceted
garlanded horse weight

Paul Ysart dragonfly weight

Baccarat dated close millefiori weight

Clichy bouquet weight
On the Popularity of Paperweights
The public auction of any big private collection always attracts a lot of attention. But a collection of glass paperweights -- who knew? The sale at Christie's New York on Sept. 23 of the Homer G. Perkins Collection of Glass Paperweights was bustling -- and extremely successful, demonstrating that the field is growing rapidly. Christie's sold 98.9 percent of the 180 lots for a total of $662,503.

Paperweights are treasured for their brilliant color and magical craftsmanship, all contained within a restricted physical scale. The classic era of paperweight-making was 1840-1860 in France, though there are very valuable modern and contemporary pieces. The three most important 19th-century French makers are Saint Louis, Baccarat and Clichy.

Only two objects failed to sell at Christie's, and one of those was the star lot. The rather simple Saint Louis "Swan" weight from the mid-19th-century (lot 79) -- one of the only weights thought to be unique -- was bought in against a presale estimate of $25,000-$30,000.

The highest price was garnered for a faceted Baccarat weight decorated with an engraved blue horse (lot 180) that went for $25,300 (est. $20,000-$25,000). The auction record for a paperweight is $258,000, set at Sotheby's New York.

The Perkins sale marks the first time an auction has been entirely devoted to glass paperweights at a major house. Usually paperweights are slotted in with porcelain and other glass items at auction. The trend towards specialist sales should help boost the overall paperweight market.

Christie's porcelain and glass specialist Melissa Bennie suggested that the growing interest in these objects has developed because they range so widely in price. A 20th-century Paul Ysart dragonfly weight (lot 20) went for $978 (est. $600-$800), while a Baccarat millefiori weight (lot 138) sold for $2,990 (est. 2,000-$2,500), and a Clichy bouquet weight (lot 115) sold for $11,500 (est $10,000-$15,000.)

Similar weights may fluctuate dramatically in price. Nuances of color, design and subject are the keys to connoisseurship. Facets, overlays, millefiori, sulphide inclusions and lattincino threads are just a few of the details to look for.

The priciest paperweights are not necessarily those with the most detail, but those thought to be unique. (Like many objets d'art, weights are made in a series -- each one is original, but not necessarily unique.)

Homer Perkins was on the scene at Christie's, hoping to infuse some collectors or collectors-to-be with his own passion for paperweights. Perkins, past president of the Paperweight Collector's Association, said he decided to sell off this part of his collection rather than leave the task to his executor. Demonstrating his true love of the glass paperweight, he wanted to see his precious collection through to its new owners.

You don't have to wait for paperweights to come up in auction -- many dealers also sell them, such as Leo Kaplan and Gem Antiques, both in New York City. Museums also recognize these objects as valuable collectibles.

Gary Baker, curator of glass at Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., acquired some important pieces from the New-York Historical Society, including a Baccarat ruby-ground weight with a sulphide Joan of Arc inside, as well as numerous miniature paperweights. Baker suggests that the growing popularity in glass has to do with advances in lighting technology, among other things. The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., also has a very extensive collection of glass paperweights.

Abigail Adams Smith Museum
New York

Abigail Adams Smith House
(Mount Vernon Hotel)
in 1860

Hester Bateman silver
at Abigail Adams Smith

View of
East 61st Street
ca. 1861
Artist unknown

New York Side Tables
ca. 1819
Colonial America
on New York's Upper East Side

One of New York's better kept secrets is the Abigail Adams Smith Museum and Gardens at 421 East 61st Street. The colonial house, one of New York City's few historic landmarks open to the public, is a treasure trove of antiques. A recent visit found the museum and garden fairly empty -- welcome respite from the bustling traffic of nearby 59th Street.

The structure originated as a carriage house around 1799 and was converted in 1826 into the Mount Vernon Hotel. The wealthiest urbanites had their country houses, but the rising class of city businessmen did not. The hotel served as a day resort to this new social sector. Four miles outside of the city limits, the hotel's setting was fairly rural, as a painting in the salon demonstrates.

The Colonial Dames acquired the landmark building in 1924 and restored it. The museum's nine period rooms seem to have barely been touched. Most of the antiques were not original to the hotel -- they were purchased by the Colonial Dames or donated to help recreate the 19th-century hotel -- but they are in fact all period pieces. Look for the Sheraton-style chairs and washstand in the bedroom, a 19th-century barrel organ in the music room, a set of 1819 American side tables and some Hester Bateman silver.

Decorative Arts at the Hermitage
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is planning to launch a new decorative arts department, and recently received a $100,000 donation towards that end from the American Friends of the Hermitage Museum. The check was formally handed over to Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky at a reception at the Russian Consulate General in New York City on Sept. 23, 1998.

The planned decorative arts section will be the first new department at the museum since 1852, and will include porcelain, furniture, costumes and more, ranging from Peter the Great in the early 17th-century to Nicholas II in 1917. The gift is just a drop in the bucket -- the museum needs millions of dollars to accomplish the expansion plans hoped for by Piotrovsky. The reception took place in conjunction with the opening of "Master Drawings From the Hermitage and Pushkin Museums" at the Morgan Library, on view Sept. 25-Jan. 10, 1999.

New Landmarks in New York?
Landmarks don't have to be old. The New-York Historical Society's program series titled "New York Landmarks, Present and Future Direction" examines the relationship between the old and the new. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 6 p.m. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, author of Landmarks of New York III (Abrams, 1998) is leading a panel discussion on "Design at the Millennium: New York City and Beyond." Call the New York Historical Society at (212) 873-3400 for reservations.

Marquetry Design in New York
The first ever exhibition of American marquetry opens at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York on October 3, 1998. "Masterpieces in Wood: American Folk Marquetry from the Hirshhorn Foundation" features 75 objects bedecked with marquetry -- a surface design technique of overlaying wood chips and veneers in intricate patterns, originated in 18th-century Europe. The exhibition includes chairs, tables, gameboards, boxes, clocks and other furniture from 1820 to the 1940s, all made by exemplary American artisans. On view at Two Lincoln Square, New York, NY through January 10, 1999.

MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is assistant editor of ArtNet Magazine.