Antique Cut Glass - Part I
When it comes to price appreciation, one of the most dawdling of all antique categories over the last seventy-five years is cut glass. Surprised? I don't blame you. Sitting on a shelf, with light sparkling though its thousands of tiny prisms, the stuff just plain looks pricey. Additionally, cut glass has all the elements to make it an outstanding performer: imagination, good looks, sophistication, craftsmanship, long lineage, variety and collectibility. It's easy to store, displays beautifully and it's costly to reproduce. Similar categories like Early American Pattern Glass and old bottles have appreciated significantly for the past half-century. So what's wrong with these beautiful crystalline wares first blown smooth as "blanks" by glass gaffers and then cut-decorated entirely by hand employing metal and stone rotating wheels.
What has prevented all but the best pieces of cut glass from jumping leaps and bounds in price like most of its antique brethren? I surmise it has more to do with perception than product. Somewhat like other value-stagnant tortoises; for instance: fancy porcelain china services and sterling and silverplate flatware, cut glass has assumed the rather dubious distinction of being dubbed a "Wedding Gift" antique. You know, those rarities wrapped up in felt and string and tucked away in the farthest recesses of our parents' storage cabinets: Cubbyholes and high places where human hands and eyes are forbid access by punishment of death or torture or worse. "Don't you dare touch that cut glass dish! That was a priceless wedding present given years ago by your rich great aunt, Zelda. That's an antique. Don't even look at it!"
Such antique "treasures" might as well be rattlesnakes or crocodiles for all the warmth they add to a house. No wonder collectors number so few in comparison to the quantity of available product. For all we've been led to believe, the stuff will bite us or freeze our fingers off if we touch it. Let us together play the role of Steve Irwin-Antique Crocodile Hunter, and take some of those foreboding icy cloaks off the category of cut glass. Hey, underneath it all, we might even find a rainbow.
First thing you need to know about cut glass is that almost every early piece you will encounter at tag sales, auctions and shops will have some kind of damage: chips, flakes, scratch bruises, fractures, white dot crush points, cracks, heat checks (a crack usually caused in the making) and cloudy looking sick glass. Next thing you need to know is that, unlike collectors of pottery, folk art, European furniture and most other genres of antiques, glass people almost universally disparage examples in their line of choice having even minute flaws. It's an antiquated attitude that one day has to change. When you encounter a top of the line cut glass specimen tagged at a giveaway price due to hard-to-detect damage, I would suggest purchasing it. A cut glass diamond with a slight flaw is still a diamond. In my opinion, values for such pieces will soon ascend when glass collectors run out of specimens to purchase in mint condition.
Besides condition, other factors contributing to the value and collectibility of cut glass are: age, form, maker, motif or pattern, flintiness and color & silver overlay-if any. This week let's start with AGE: Cut glass can generally be categorized as falling within the following periods:
- Early Period: (Ancient times to 1876) Most early period cut glass was embellished in such a way as to decorate the blank but not necessarily as a signature type of artisanship unto itself. Scarce 18th century pieces cut by European master engravers like Bohemian craftsman, Christian Gottried Schneider (1710-1773) notwithstanding. Thus, a beautiful cut glass beaker or wine glass or decanter from say the late 18th century would probably be more sought after by colonial period furniture collectors as a decorative accouchement than cut glass collectors who generally covet later examples with more stylized and competitively influenced wheel work. In America some of the finest early cut glass pieces were produced in Pittsburgh by Bakewell, Page & Bakewell and in Boston by the New England Glass Company. Universally unmarked Early Period cut glass can sometimes be maker identified by cutting pattern by those who take the time to familiarize themselves with known examples in museums and scholarly references.
- Brilliant Period: (1876-1916) The golden period of cut glass came to the forefront at the end of the Civil War with the discovery of high grade silica and the introduction of efficient natural gas furnaces. Several American glasshouses including: Dorflinger & Sons (1852-1921), Mount Washington Glass Works (1837-1894) and Pitkin & Brooks (1872-1920) began producing cut glass that rivaled the best pieces made in Europe. The Meriden (CT) Flint Glass Company specialized in cut glass with fancy silver overlay work. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia is credited by many experts for creating a marketing frenzy for cut glass that launched numerous manufacturers and almost overnight turned competitive glass cutting design into a new type of art form. American Brilliant Period Cut Glass is characterized by crystal very high in lead content cut deeply at intricate angles so that the glass sparkles like diamonds after, as a final component of its making, the cut surfaces are hand polished with pumice or a similar abrasive and a potter's buffing wheel.
- Later Period: By far the mostly common encountered cut glass this later stage in the art form is characterized by inferior quality in both cutting and the type metal or glass employed. Later Period cut glass production pieces are almost always lower in lead content than American Brilliant Period cut glass. Later Period cut glass can be identified by its lighter mass weight, reduced prismatic effect and a softened bell tone quality when tapped. Additionally, beginning around 1900, an acid dip process was introduced supplanting hand polishing finish work to smooth out rough edges, etc. after cutting on the wheel. Later Period cut glass lacks the definition and sharpness of first or second period cut flint glass that was painstakingly hand polished as a final finishing process. Such wares are best left on those highest shelves in your neighbors' homes where they most certainly belong. Aunt Zelda wouldn't have it any other way.
We'll talk more about cut glass next week. Until then, I will leave you with something to look for in your antique hunting travels. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century a firm from Philadelphia, Quaker City Cut Glass Company, began producing "Comet" motif glass featuring star cut designs with trailing comet tail cutting. This undoubtedly was in anticipation of the 1910 return of Halley's comet and would certainly add sparkle to any home. By the way, if you think Star Trek or space exploration collectors might look on comet glass as a "cross collectible," well, you'd best have Scotty beam you up.