Q: I need some advice. I paid $140 at an estate sale for a figure that was identified as a “jade sculpture.” When I took it to a gallery for an appraisal, I was told it was soapstone, not jade, and that it was worth $40. I contacted the estate sale company, and the owner more or less said “tough luck.” Is it really? Or is the estate sale company responsible?
A: Look at it this way. If you had paid $40 for a figure marked “soapstone,” then found out it was jade, would you give $100 back to the estate sale company? Lawsuits have been filed in both types of situations, but your legal costs would amount to more than $100. An established auction house would have had an expert look at your figure before it was offered for sale, but an estate sale company might claim that the family whose sale it handled made the error. A legitimate auction house probably would return your money. But with an estate or house sale, you face a case of “buyer beware” (in other words, “tough luck"). The only thing that might have helped was asking for a receipt that included a written guarantee. Then the estate sale company might have been willing to return your money. You have learned a difficult lesson, but take some heart. Soapstone figures are popular with collectors — someone might pay more than $40 for your sculpture if you decide to sell it.
Q: I have a small silver match holder. Part of it is covered with a pale green collection of little dots that look almost like small tiles. Someone told me it is something called “chagreen,” but I never understood what that is.
A: Shagreen (not chagreen) is a grainy, untanned leather that was originally made from the hide of a Turkish wild ass called a shagri. The hide was soaked in lime water, then dyed green, red, black or blue. Shagreen was also made from camel, horse or goat skin. Small seeds were pressed into the leather to give an artificial graining. Shark skin was used in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was dried and dyed. The surface does look like small polished pebbles or textured enamel. It was popular with Art Deco designers and was used for small boxes, cigarette boxes and cases, wastebaskets, eyeglass cases and even trunks.
Q: I just found a box of old lead soldiers that belonged to my great-grandfather. A few are marked. Are they collected today?
A: Yes. In the 1700s, toy soldiers about 2 inches high were bought for the children of the rich and sometimes for their fathers. The earliest toy soldiers were flat, but by the 1790s French manufacturers were selling French Revolutionary toy soldiers that were three-dimensional. There were many different makers, and soldiers from many parts of the world were made. Staging old battles with the toys was a popular pastime. Collectors today pay premium prices for soldiers made by William Britain. In 1893 he introduced a line of toy soldiers that was less expensive than existing toys because they were hollow-cast rather than solid. Look for pieces marked Britains, BMC or Johillco, the best-known English makers.