Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Avengers' Style

My sharp-eyed friends Marc & Maiken at the excellent Utopia2000 in Germany are currently selling an opaque white large Holmegaard or Kastrup 'Gulvvase' designed by Otto Brauer in 1962.
In another instance of seeing great vintage design on the small screen, they spotted an identical piece in Emma Peel's fashionable 1960s house in the first series of 'The Avengers'. The pictures here show the indomitable John Steed, with the bottle in the background, and Emma peering in wearing what looks like to be a fab psychedelic dress!
The Gulvvase is an iconic 1960s glass design, with prices ranging from £30 to over £250 depending on colour and size. The most desirable are opaque, and colours include white, light blue, red, green, and yellow. It was also produced in different transparent colours - but watch out for 1970s reproductions retailed by Cascade in the UK. These less desirable and valuable reproductions can be distinguished by their colours - kingfisher blue, colourless, pewter grey and smokey topaz - which are quite different to the originals.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Mumbai Oasis

It's always worth doing your homework properly, checking any marks on a piece against your research. A few months ago, I found a rather amusingly mis-described item for sale. The seller knew exactly what it was, and described it accurately as an "Isle of Wight Studio Glass Fish vase designed by Michael Harris". They also noted that it was numbered 36 from an apparent edition of 500, and bore the inscribed range name of 'Mumbai Oasis'.
Any piece of Isle of Wight Studio Glass inscribed with such numbering identifies it as having come from the batch ordered by an American department store in around 1986. Each was inscribed with a number under 500, giving the impression of a limited edition. In fact, this means that it was one of 500 pieces ordered - and the batch included all manner of different shapes and sizes from many different ranges produced at the time. Expensive Fish vases were very much in the minority, with only a few being included. Each piece was also inscribed 'England', to comply with export laws.
As to the unusual 'range name' - that's easy! All these pieces were also signed by Michael Harris. Read quickly, his scrolling signature can look like 'Mumbai Oasis' to the uninitiated. Those in the know know that his signature adds a hefty premium to a piece, as he so very rarely signed his work. At this time, Michael was the only person with enough skill to make Fish vases, backing up the fact that this was certainly made by him. Interestingly, he only used gold leaf on this piece, presumably as it made more contrasting visual impact than silver leaf. Add to this the fact that it's a large example (9.5in/25cm high), and it's in the beautiful deep Azurene Blue that was only produced during Michael's lifetime in that form from 1985-87, and you have a VERY rare piece indeed.
But that hardly matters. The Fish vase is undoubtedly Michael's most iconic shape, and this treasure is truly stunning to look at - it's a great piece the owner should enjoy for many years to come.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Bargaining in Beijing

Our first stop was the capital city of Beijing, known as Peking until the Revolution in 1949. After a recouperative night's sleep following the 9 hour flight from London, I set off mid-morning to enormous Panjiayuan antiques market in the south east of the city. Although many flea markets are overrun with tourists, particularly in or near the centre of the city, this is more authentic and apparently many centrally based dealers buy here.
The market compound is divided into two main sections, wide alleyways lined with permanent shops, and a truly vast open sided barn where sellers spread out rugs or blankets to display their wares for sale. I'm told that many are peasants who make their way into town after buying in the provinces, but I think most are really canny professionals.
By the time our taxi pulled up mid-morning, only a fifth of the space was still occupied - trade seemingly starts and tails off very early, and Saturday and Sunday are the best and busiest days. But there were still over 200 'stalls', so the hunt was on. I had a good look round first to see what items were repeated across stands - obviously these would be factory produced contemporary pieces. Almost dizzy from the enormous selection, I spotted an appealing blue and white ceramic bottle vase at one stand, and a bright, three-coloured 'Peking glass' vase at another. Although I also wanted some bronze and jade, the quality of these looked either too poor or too obviously 'old'. Plus I also collect glass, and I've always liked blue & white porcelain and been interested in the marks on the bases.
Bartering is obligatory here. The problem is that, as this isn't really on the main tourist trail despite the dual language signage, nobody speaks English! The universal languages of gesticulation and facial expressions come into play, along with a calculator to indicate the price.
The blue and white vase (18cm/7in high) was up first and the seller stabbed 1,200 yuan (£110/$175) into the calculator. I countered with a cheeky 120 yuan (£12/$18). In a second's time I was given the calculator again and the new price was 900 yuan. I typed 120 yuan again. Huffing and puffing ensued and led to an offer of 600 yuan. Holding my position, I firmly retyped 120 yuan, accompanying it with a grim expression. He took the calculator back and turned his back on me with a theatrical shrug. I began to walk away. He grabbed my arm gently and thrust the calculator back in my face. The screen read 150 yuan. I smiled and took out a 100 yuan note from my back pocket and rustled a 20 yuan note out of my wallet which I had previously prepared to only contain small notes. He turned away, and I began to walk away again. This time he shouted and grabbed my arm, nodding to accept the cash. Within seconds the vase was wrapped in torn newspaper and in a plastic bag and I had handed over my cash. I guess it's sometimes good to go late in the day, even though it was early for me!
Onto the glass vase (15cm/6in high), which was one of only two I saw in the whole place. After I pointed it out, the lady seller proudly shouted out 'Older!' with a grin. The calculator price was 1,800 yuan (£160/$260). Fired by my last bargain, I typed 100 yuan (£9/$15) in and unsurprisingly nearly blew the deal! After I smiled to show the game had opened, the calculator was returned with a 1,500 yuan price tag. I pushed my luck and went to 120 yuan. The next price was 920. I began to turn away and the immediate next price was 600. I tried 120 again, but was met with a serious 'NO!' type of expression. Clearly it was time for me to move again, so I typed 150 yuan. The deal was back on track. The price dropped again to 450 yuan, as she pointed out the birds and flowers on the vase and reiterated the 'Older!' exclamation. I shrugged and looked bored and the price became 300 yuan. I immediately countered with 180 yuan (£17/$26) and ran my hand firmly across my neck to show this was my final price. She barked at her colleague and within seconds the vase was wrapped in scrumpled newspaper and in a bag as she looked theatrically distraught, shaking her head. We shook hands, and vase, cash and smiles were exchanged. Wow - an intense and rapid experience again!
We then took a calming walk around the rest of the mini-streets inside the market compound, looking into the many shops that stocked everything from Ming dynasty style furniture to yet more ceramics, bronzes and jades. Prices seemed higher, but shop owners were very keen to get bartering going by proffering calculators and motioning at pieces that I had looked at. Everyone has something to sell, and they're admirably not shy about trying to sell it to you, showing the country's centuries' long experience in trading. A tip though - as with any bartering, always be polite, respectful, cheerful, gentle and show good intentions. Rudeness will get you nowhere.
By midday, the market appeared to be slowing down. A few other Westerners had arrived by taxi and browsed around. Many seemed taken by the bright, jaunty colours of the more modern pieces on offer, but a shop selling (surprisingly) apparently original gramophones, cameras and Bakelite radios also attracted plenty of attention.
As the market is somewhat out of the way, hailing a taxi back to the centre (25mins) was more of a trial than bartering. Many guide books, such as our excellent and thoroughly trustworthy Moon guide, recommend booking a car for the return trip and this seems like good advice. As we sped away to the sound of Chinese pop blaring from the radio, I though about showing my new purchases to a couple of colleagues on the Antiques Roadshow.
Although I have no doubt that they are modern reproductions from the £27 ($43) total price and suspicious presence of mud on the bodies, I want to know exactly how an expert can tell, and what the marks on the bottoms (one shown above) mean. I also wonder how old they actually are? I'll let you know when I find out. Still, none of this matters to me - both are pieces that I like, and they make affordable souvenirs of a highly memorable experience.

Bye Bye Atlantique City

Billed as 'the world's largest indoor antiques show', the wonderfully named Atlantique City, held twice a year in Atlantic City, New Jersey has been cancelled by owner F+W Media. I'm sure I'm amongst many thousands of dealers, collectors and auctioneers who are extremely sad to hear this. In compiling the DK Judith Miller Collectables Price Guides, I spent a number of years visiting the show in Spring and Autumn, which never failed to leave me inspired and in awe - and my bank account drained.
Although I haven't been for a few years now, it was also the place I met many people who I am now lucky to count as colleagues, including watch expert Mark Laino of Mark of Time, Barbara Blau of the South St Antiques Market, Sharon & Joe Happle of Sign of the Tymes, marble and glass experts Bob & Mark Block, costume jewellery supremos Roxanne Stuart and Bonny Yankauer, Barbara Lauver and Dotty Ayers of The Calico Teddy, and Esther Harris of Vintage Eyewear of New York City. I also encountered many other great experts and characters, including a US Senator!
The Miller's team are also grateful to Ted and Diane, the organisers who managed the mega-show for many years until 2005, for allowing us to go the first time. With over 2,000 dealers from across the US and visitor numbers running into the tens of thousands, it really was a major event up there with the New York Pier Shows and Brimfield. Here are a few images of an avenue in the fair itself, the Judith Miller book stand in 2006, and Judith, photographer Graham Rae, and I outside a restaurant inside one of the massive casinos.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Holidays in China

Looking at the pictures here, I'm giving you no guesses about where I spent my Summer holidays this year! Carefully saved air miles were cashed in, and at the end of August the banker and I went on a two week trip across China, a place neither of us had been to before. Although I did take some time off and away from work, I just can't tear myself away completely. As a result I was able to check out some of the best destinations for hunting for antiques and collectables in the four cities we visited.
I say antiques, but they weren't my target. Compared to the West, there are fewer authentic antiques in China due to the Cultural Revolution, and the enormous level of export of goods across the centuries. It's also illegal to export antiques made before 1795, and authentic pieces made after that date until the early 20thC need to be examined by government experts, have a red seal applied, and be officially cleared for export. But there's another concern for me with Chinese, or any Asian, antiques or works of art. Although I've been interested, I've never had to time to learn in depth about this incredibly deep and complex subject. So it's possible that, in China, I might not know what I was looking at, or whether I was paying the right price.
China has had a long history of reproducing historic designs and styles, partly out of respect for the people that made them, and partly for the obvious commercial reasons. Would I know if I was buying a modern reproduction, or even one made a century ago in respectful imitation of an Ancient design? Time will tell...
So I decided that my self-set task was to find the best modern and exportable reproduction or fake that I could. The trip was expensive, so I set myself a limit of no more than £50 per piece, and my budget only allowed me to buy a couple of pieces...

Sampson Mordan pencils in BBC magazine

A few months ago, I wrote a quick blog entry on a particular passion of mine - Mordan propelling pencils. You can read it here. You can imagine my delight when BBC Homes & Antiques magazine commissioned me to write an article on the subject. As well as a history of the company and its products, you can read my pick for 'An Investment', 'Three Of The Best' and an explanation of the different marks used by the company across the century or so they were in existence. As ever with this magazine, the photography is also stunning!
In addition to this, there's a special 'behind the scenes' feature on the Antiques Roadshow from presenter Fiona Bruce, the usual price guide feature and sumptuous interiors, and a fascinating 'Real or Fake' feature from David Battie on Chinese porcelain. The current issue is out now and costs a mere £3.60. If it inspires you find out more, I can wholeheartedly recommend visiting the 'London Writing Equipment' show on October 4th. Click here to visit their website.
Also, check out the 'Changing Rooms' box on page 23 for some exciting news...more on that to come!