Some Christmas Ornaments Need Insurance Protection

Times Staff Writer

Question: My wife and I have been collecting Christmas tree ornaments from many countries we have visited. Ultimately we hope to pass this large collection on to our children. Before we do, however, is this a collectible category that has enough value to justify protecting with insurance?--H.D.

Answer: Absolutely. Nostalgia combined with heightened interest in the artistry of Christmas ornaments, both old and new, has pushed prices upward. An appraisal is definitely in order.

In this country, ornaments were generally of the homemade variety until after the Civil War. Then, Americans began buying imported ornaments, particularly from Germany, where artists had been fashioning everything from simple stars to more complex figures, such as soldiers and animals. Materials ranged from cardboard to glass to silver and gold.

One of the first American merchants to see the wide public appeal of tree ornaments was retail store entrepreneur Frank Woolworth, who began importing glass ornaments from Germany in the 1880s. It wasn’t long before he was selling hundreds of thousands of the ornaments through his stores, making him, for a few years at least, America’s largest distributor of the symbols of Christmas cheer and tradition.


Like most collectibles, condition and age count for a lot in determining the value of ornaments. The problem is, however, that it’s difficult to ascertain age with any precision, collectors say.

Certain ornament-making techniques can be traced to particular years or eras. For example, an ornament that is topped by a metal cap with a hole, rather than a clip-type fastener, was probably produced during this century’s first years.

Related to this collecting field are light-bulb ornaments. Again, some of the most collectible bulbs were made in Germany and Austria--with American craftsmen making their mark by the turn of the century. Most collectible are bulbs shaped like animals, flowers and, of course, St. Nick.

Collecting tip: Be careful about washing and cleaning old ornaments, because water and detergents can cause peeling, thus ruining their value.


Q: Have you noticed that collecting nautical stuff is very much in vogue? I’d like to have the name of a club whose membership specializes in ship gear.--C.T.

A: We’ll be happy to print the names and addresses of such clubs if we hear from them.

Collecting nautical material has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. Indeed, it has become something of a fashion statement to decorate one’s office or den with items like navigational and weather instruments.

Unlike some other collectible categories, age may not be the sole criterion of value. A ship’s wheel or piece of rigging from a famous World War II ship could have considerably more value than, say, an item from a turn-of-the-century vessel.


But beware of fakes, which seem to abound in this field.

Veteran collectors say one way to identify fakes is to look for mass production machinery marks in contrast to the decades-old irregular production techniques used on handmade items.

Former chess champ Bobby Fischer still has a cult following, if a recent Manhattan auction of his papers and books is any guide. Swan Galleries acquired the Fischer collection from the Brooklyn Public Library, which bought the items 20 years ago from a book store that, in turn, had purchased the material from Fischer.

A 1956 ninth-grade science lab notebook containing then-13-year-old Fischer’s drawings and jottings sold for $660. A typed manuscript of Fischer’s 1968 book, “My 60 Memorable Games.”


Fischer has been widely reported to be a recluse in the Los Angeles area. If this auction is any guide, all the chess genius has to do is jot a few observations in a chess book and--presto--instant cash.