Collecting Antique Glass

Specialties – Care and Repair – Spotting Fakes

With all of the wide varieties of antique glass, many collectors choose to specialize in a particular type of glass to collect. Some limit themselves to Italian art glass, others to hand-painted English glass. Some collect pieces from a given maker, like Tiffany, while others collect pieces from a particular artistic style or time period, like turn of the century glass, or Art Nouveau work. Still others choose a particular type of piece, and go from there. Some glass collectors enjoy collecting plates. Antique perfume bottles or apothecary bottles are also very much sought after.

The type of glass you chose to collect will influence what is and isn't of value about a given piece. If you only wish to collect Tiffany lamps, a Tiffany knock-off from that era won't be of interest to you. If you choose to collect antique perfume bottles, however, any antique perfume bottle can find a home in your collection, regardless of who produced it.

Collectors of antique glass look for many of the same things that other collectors look for: pieces which are in as good condition as possible, and are relatively uncommon. In cases such as Depression glass, where numerous examples of the art are on the market, collectors look for limited run patterns, or uncommon color combinations. In many cases, it can be hard to differentiate a rare piece with a forgery. This is where one man's trash becomes another's treasure, and where skilled, experienced collectors experience the excitement of discovering a rare find.

The primary things that influence a piece's value are the maker, rarity of the design, the presence of flaws, and the condition. Many pieces of antique glass were either handmade, or produced before modern industrial glass making techniques made flaws uncommon. As a result, a large number of pieces will have small wrinkles, bubbles, tilted millefiori canes, or other minor production flaws. Flawless pieces are more uncommon.

Much of the beauty of many forms of antique glass comes from the distinctive colors and finishes imparted to the final product. In some cases, such as the colorful glass of Murano, these colors are produced within the glass itself. In other cases, such as the beautifully hand-painted pieces from England, colors are layered onto the glass after production. In this case, learning how to properly care for different types of glass poses a unique challenge.

Antique glass should never be placed in a dishwasher. Not only can the extremes of temperature in a dishwasher cause fragile old glass to crack, the powerful jets can move glass around, causing delicate pieces to chip and break. Many pieces of old glass also have delicate finishes and carefully applied colors, and the harsh abrasives in dish soap for automatic washers can wreak havoc on them. At best, you will end up with a piece of Carnival glass that's had all of its lovely iridescence scrubbed away. At worst, you'll end up with a valuable heirloom piece that's been broken beyond recognition. No matter how good your automatic washer may be, do not trust it with valuable antiques.

Most chips, dings, and breaks occur during cleaning; .this is especially true of pieces with many small, fine protuberances. To clean these pieces properly, it's worth purchasing a set of good-quality makeup brushes, and a can of compressed air. Makeup brushes can be used to lightly dust the small areas in intricate pieces of pressed, etched, or cut glass, and compressed air can be used to blow away any dust that the brushes themselves cannot reach. A word of caution, however: compressed air can be extremely cold, and care must be taken that the liquid propellant is never allowed to touch the glass piece you're working on. The temperature difference can cause glass to crack.

If your pieces are dusted well and kept clean, they should not need to be washed. If you come across a piece that is already beyond dusting, then it can usually be soaked in a basin of tepid water with mild soap. Make sure all of your taps are covered to prevent accidents, and be sure to use water that is neither too warm, nor too cold. Extremes of temperature can cause glass to break. Hold the piece gently but firmly while you move it through the water, and remove it as soon as you're satisfied that it is thoroughly cleaned.

As a rule of thumb, it's not a good idea to try to dry antique glass pieces by hand. If you've used a good quality soap and clean water, air drying should not leave any residue or bubbles. Hand drying provides another opportunity for breakages to occur, so it's always best to just allow wet antique glass pieces to sit until they've air dried. Always allow bottles and stoppers to dry separately, as stoppers can become permanently stuck in their bottles if they are replaced while damp.

Certain pieces of glass have delicate finishes on them which can be easily rubbed off with regular washing. If in doubt, don't wash your piece of glass. In most situations, regular dusting will suffice.

Antique glass repair is almost always best left to experts. Glass, by its very nature, is not quite as tolerant of repairs as materials such as wood, metal, or porcelain are, and antique glass is even more temperamental. Even a well-done repair can end up being unsightly, and further detract from the aesthetic and monetary value of the piece that was repaired. Slight nicks and chips at the rim of bottles, jars, plates, goblets, or similar pieces can easily be ground and polished away, but more serious cracks should always be handled by a professional. Attempting to repair them yourself could lead to a ruined finish, further breakage, or an unsightly, badly-repaired crack.

While it is possible to skillfully repair certain pieces of glass so that no trace of the repair is visible, the expertise and materials needed to do so are generally outside of the scope of most collectors.

As with all vintage and antique items of value, the issue of fakes and forgeries cannot be avoided in collectible glass. Not all forgeries are created with the intent of passing off fake goods to unsuspecting collectors, of course. When it comes to popular pieces of glassware, in many cases fakes exist simply because another manufacturer wanted to capitalize on what was a popular product at the time.

The best thing you can do to protect yourself against forgeries is to educate yourself about the particular type of glass that strikes your interest. Consider for example, carnival glass. Carnival glass was often produced in distinctive colors, like pastels, marigold yellow, and dark shades of blue, purple, and green. Shades other than these are more likely to be knock-offs. Carnival glass is also known for its iridescence. Pieces that either lack an opal-like sheen, or have a blobby or uneven finish are suspect.

Glass pieces also generally have a stamp or signature somewhere indicating the company that produced the piece, and occasionally the date of production or region where the piece was made. In a forgery, these marks will either be completely absent, or missing one or more distinguishing features. Some Carnival glass pieces surfaced not long ago that had an N stamp on the bottom of them, reminiscent of the mark of the Northwood, but they lacked the underscore and circle. Though the bowls were good enough to fool an inexperienced collector, someone who has collected genuine Carnival glass in the past would easily recognize the fakes.

Depression glass is another type of antique glass frequently subjected to reproductions and forgeries. Because of the nature of how Depression glass was made, these fakes can usually be spotted by their weight. Authentic Depression glass is a lightweight, inexpensively produced pressed glass. In most cases, reproductions are significantly heavier than the genuine article. Depression glass was also made in very light, translucent tones. Glass that is significantly darker or deeper in hue is also most likely a fake. Some collectors can spot fake Depression glass by different flaws that occur when forgers use modern manufacturing methods to reproduce Depression glass techniques. However, much authentic Depression glass has small factory flaws anyway, so inexperienced collectors may have a hard time differentiating between a flawed genuine piece, and a good fake.

In many cases, pieces were produced with a definite pattern. This is especially true of Carnival, Depression, and milk glass. Becoming familiar with the different patterns used to produce these pieces can help you spot a fake from a mile away. If a given pattern was designed with a sawtooth edge, or a hobnail detail on the outside, and you spot a piece that's missing that minor detail, odds are it isn't genuine.

When it comes to looking at hand-painted pieces, spotting forgeries becomes a bit easier. Glass painters were artists, who paid very close attention to detail in their work. Most people who produce forgeries and reproductions lack the skill of the original artists and they rarely put the level of care and detail into their knock-offs that the original artists did. In many cases, sloppy or inexpert painting or glazing is a dead giveaway that a piece is of questionable origin.

Collecting antique glass is a rewarding hobby that allows collectors to adorn their homes with beautiful historically significant pieces of glass art. Though it can take years to get to the level of an experienced collector and appraiser, the effort put into learning about your chosen area of expertise is well worth it.

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