How To Identify An Antique Paperweight
by Jerry Gard
In the Internet paperweight discussion group hosted by L.H. Selman Ltd., a participant recently asked the group a simple question “How do you identify an antique paperweight”? This simple question prompted a very honest and accurate response by Jerry Gard, who has allowed us to reprint it and to archive it here for the benefit of our website visitors.
Jerry’s response was “Everyone wants a simple 1-2-3 formula for identifying antique or just old (or how old?) paperweights.” Unfortunately, it is just not that simple, nor can everyone learn to do it well. Once I brought through customs in Boston a St. Louis pansy I had bought at the Paris flea market, and the inspector asked me how he could learn how to tell an antique (from modern reproductions) and this is what I told him, and it still holds true today for you and other beginners.
Get three or four good books that stress identification and read them slowly and thoroughly until you really understand them. This means reading them once and skimming them two or three times, studying the pictures. Then, whenever you get to hold and study a weight, reread the sections that deal with that weight while studying it with a magnifying glass. After you have done that 70 or 80 times with a variety of antiques which cover the gamut, you will, if you have a good memory for shapes and patterns and colors (I actually didn’t tell him that part), begin to be able to distinguish the various makers and to tell old weights from the modern. He responded, “I thought you would say something like that.”
I did not give him a list of the books, but I will for you. They are, in somewhat an order of preference:
- Encyclopedia of Glass Paperweights by Paul Hollister (a clear number one on my list)
- Identifying Antique Paperweights-Millefiori and
- Identifying Antique Paperweights-Lampwork both by George Kulles
- Paperweights for Collectors by L.H. and L.P. Selman
- All About Paperweights by L.H. Selman,
All of which were published by Selman’s Paperweight Press and some are still available. The others can frequently be found in the aftermarket. Augment these with museum and auction catalogs, if possible, so as to be able to study the pictures while reading the text in the above. Please remember that the older the catalog the more misattributions there will be, and even some current material will contain a few errors because the people who put them together either are not experts on all kinds of weights, or am hurried in their analysis, or both. If you are interested in American 20th century weights, you must also have Melvin’s American Glass Paperweights and Their Makers (1970 edition) and for Millville roses, Clarence Newell’s Old Glass Paperweights of Southern New Jersey.
Please also keep in mind that the identification does not swing on one piece of evidence, as a criminal trial might, but is more like a civil case, where the determination is based upon the preponderance of the evidence. That is, all features are weighed, but with particular emphasis on those that don’t change with time or alteration. Thus, profile is interesting but if a weight has been reground, we are not sure what the original profile was. Density, on the other hand, has not changed since the weight was made, and so is a better piece of evidence than an altered profile. The most emphasis is placed on details made by tooling peculiar to a particular factory. The Baccarat star, for example, has small points in between the six large ones, a detail that comes from the shape of the floor mold in which the star was formed. Baccarat used that mold through- out the classic period, and, I believe, still has the same mold and uses it to this day.
Also, you will often hear someone say “It can’t be a such-and-such because they never did this or that.” But most of the “nevers” have fallen to better information, which is more reason to go with the preponderance of the evidence. Clichy paperweights are known with silhouettes as are Baccarat mushrooms, two “nevers” that bit the dust in the last few years. New England did use upset muslin grounds, despite the fact that in the number 4 reference book above, it says in a table on page 34 that it “never occurs.” That book was published in 1975: because of it I have made somewhat a fetish of collecting New England muslin grounds and now own four.
Sandwich flowers do appear on double swirled latticinio, but they are sometimes called New England just because of the latticinio. Similarly, many dealers, encountering an American flower on jasper, automatically pronounce it Sandwich, as if jasper settled the matter once and for all. Actually, many of these are New England, which also used jasper quite frequently. In fact, this is the most common attribution error I see in current auction catalogs, and it is due to relying on one clue rather than the preponderance of the evidence. (The leaf veining is a much more reliable indicator here, as it was made by a tool, but flower petal length and overall form add more clues, as does density.) And when the experts mess up, what is the poor beginner to do?
“Well, study those books and pictures and sometime you’ll be able to tell when they do, and make your own determination. I truly wish there was a way to make it easier than this, but I’m afraid that it just can’t be so, given that all of the makers were aware of their competitors and used the techniques and patterns of the competition when they thought it was good business to do so, and we are left with trying to figure who and how, some 100 or 150 years later. On the other hand, that is one of the things that make this hobby so fascinating and enjoyable, and it certainly is that.”
Jerry Gard, Los Altos, CA
P.S. Sometimes short questions have long answers.