Smart to Start Auction With a Preview

Times Staff Writer

Question: I'm planning to attend an auction and wonder if it's necessary to make a separate visit to view the collectibles a few days before the sale.--R.U.

Answer: If you're serious about making some purchases, it would be wise to spend some time at the preview. After all, you're probably considering spending significantly more cash than you would plunk down at a flea market--so you want to do your homework on the merchandise.

Often, a catalogue will provide you with a sort of road map to what's being sold. Additionally, attending a viewing will provide you with an opportunity to question auction officials or individuals associated with the sale. You won't have an opportunity to do this during the quick-paced action on auction day.

Q: How difficult is it to determine the age of a wooden collectible?--F.P.

A: You may encounter some problems unless you have made an effort to acquire background in your collectible field. Wood tends to age quickly and, if exposed to the elements, can weather to the point where the item may appear much older than it really is.

For example, a weather vane may appear old because of the weathering process, but it could have been copied from an earlier design. Therefore, the serious collector will have to know something about how wood dries and contracts over the years as part of the aging process.

Also it would be a good idea to become familiar with individual artists or manufacturers in an effort to more precisely authenticate the age of wooden collectibles.

Q: What's the original manufacturing date for L. E. Smith glass?--W.M.

A: The firm was founded about 1910 in Mount Pleasant, Pa., and its products have been popular at flea markets, garage sales and the like. One reason is that its colorful products--in blue, amber, green and a number of other colors--are relatively modestly priced. A sugar bowl, for example, could change hands for under $10, a cookie jar for $40 or $50.

Although early Smith pieces may have an initial stamped on them for identification purposes, more recently produced items may only carry a paper label.

Q: For purposes of researching my bottle collection, how far back can I go in determining the point at which American bottle production began to take off?--H.A.

A: Collectors generally look back to the period around the War of 1812--when British production was blocked from the U.S. market--as the point when American bottle production really began to prosper. A number of companies sprung up in New York state and in New England, and their products have become prized collector's items.

A variety of bottles was produced at that time, ranging from wine bottles to bottles for a number of household uses. Because many of these bottles were hand blown, their shapes can vary greatly; bottles that are unique are attractive to collectors.

One problem, however, was that many of these early bottles did not carry identifying marks, and so it may prove difficult for the collector to either identify the manufacturer or get a firm handle on the time of production. By the middle of the 19th Century, mass production became more prevalent. And, through labeling and embossing processes, it has become easier for collectors to determine age and manufacturer.

Even so, collectors--and there are thousands of them in this country because this is a very popular collectible category--are faced with the task of sorting through literally thousands of firms that have produced bottles in the past century. Automatic bottle-production machines were largely introduced around the turn of the century. Mass production, in turn, forced out of business many firms which had used old-fashioned glass-blowing techniques.

Q: Is it true that an edition of the Gutenberg Bible was separated page by page and that the pages exchanged hands for a number of years?--T.E.

A: While there are perhaps only four dozen complete Gutenbergs known to be in existence, and while they could currently have a price tag individually in excess of $2 million, it's also true that individual pages have sold for a few thousand dollars each. That's because more than 60 years ago, a bookseller acquired an incomplete copy of a Gutenberg and began selling one page at a time for $3,000 or more per page in good condition or for pages that had well-known biblical passages.

Retrieving rare Bibles as a collectible can be an expensive proposition. However, collectors tell us that American Bibles printed in the 19th Century are fairly plentiful and provide fine examples of that century's printing and production.

What makes this such a fascinating collectible for many is that so many individualized Bibles have been produced in the past 200 years in this country--that is, by individual printers who had their own ideas on what type of engraving and typefaces to use. Although the printers did not become household names, their productions have found their way into many collections. For example, some collectors specialize in Bibles produced in just one section of the country, while others put together editions from just one particular religious denomination.

Q: I have an opportunity to purchase a grandfather clock in need of repair. In terms of collecting, is this frowned upon? Should I instead seek a clock in good condition?--L.S.

A: In many other categories of collectibles we have advised against going overboard on restoration lest it devalue the item. Particularly in the area of Americana, collectors usually want to preserve the original finish as much as possible even if the item does look a bit shabby.

But with clocks, if you can locate a professional who knows how to refinish cabinets or who understands clockworks, then go for it. If done properly, this shouldn't hurt your grandfather clock's value, said a dealer.

The other side of this coin--that is, finding a 100-year-old grandfather clock in good condition and running--translates into a costly sale. So if you come across a bargain in a country store, it may be worth it to you to restore such things as the pendulum and the movement.

Among the most prized clocks are those produced in this country during the 18th Century. Many of the most valued of these clocks were manufactured in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Q: I have some old wicker furniture that has been passed along in our family, and I wonder if it has any real collectible value.--P.N.

A: Although not as popular as some other collectible areas, there nevertheless are many individuals throughout the country who scour markets and back-country stores for early examples of American wicker design.

Particularly attractive to collectors are chairs and other pieces produced soon after the Civil War. They have fairly complex designs, which became the standard for future woven wicker products.

This particular field demands some study because you will have to recognize particular design patterns to roughly identify the time frame in which it was produced.

It's no sin to repair wicker, but it is a complicated, sometimes tedious process. Strict attention must be paid to avoid altering the particular piece's design.

In recent years, wicker prices have varied wildly, depending on condition and age of the item.

Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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