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Archive for Sunday, September 9, 2012

Kovel’s Antiques: Joke ceramics a highly collectible oddity

September 9, 2012

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Put some fun into your collections and start hunting for old or new figurines, plates and drinking mugs that were meant to be jokes.

Puzzle mugs date back to the 1700s. They were popular in taverns. When a patron was tipsy, the bartender poured ale into a mug that hid a realistic pottery frog at the bottom. Empty the mug and the frog appeared while other patrons laughed.

In the early 1800s, Chinese export porcelains were sometimes decorated with humorous or off-color subjects. One famous design is a scene of a young woman wearing a full skirt and sitting on a swing. The man next to her appears to be pushing the swing. But on the back of the plate, you can see the back of the woman. Her skirt is pushed up to show her bare backside. The design was so popular that the same scene was made into a molded iron ashtray 100 years later.

Many of these jokes were connected to drinking and bars. In the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law, dozens of small bottles and flasks were made by Schafer and Vater, a German company. They were satirical, funny and risque.

A disheveled drunk labeled “Prohibition,” an Uncle Sam figure holding a martini glass, a decanter shaped like a monk pouring a drink with the inscription “Spiritually Uplifting” and many other figural bottles that held whiskey were given as gifts for birthdays and holidays.

Twentieth-century joke ceramics range from dime-store “potty figures” of children sitting on potties to George Tinworth’s Royal Doulton figurines of animals acting like humans and English Martinware fantasy birds with removable heads.

Twenty-first-century jokes are easy to find and include Disney and comic-book characters. Many of the fun pieces made before 2000 now sell for high prices. But don’t ignore joke ceramics of today. They may turn out to be valuable in 50 years.

I own a 24-inch-high tiger maple dresser I found in my parents’ attic. In a drawer I found a stamped mark that says, “Widdicomb Company.” On the back of the drawer someone wrote: “Trimmed July 8, 1911, Inspected August 14, 1911, Varnished August 23, 1911, Polished February 2, 1912, and Inspected February 29, 1912.” Any information would be appreciated.

John Widdicomb founded his company in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1897. The company’s early work focused on interior woodwork and fireplace mantels, but it soon switched to mid-priced bedroom suites and kitchen cabinets.

During the 1910s and ’20s, Widdicomb Co. made bedroom suites with matching and contrasting veneers. It continued to make furniture until 2002, when the factory in Grand Rapids closed. L. & J.G. Stickley Co. purchased the company’s remaining assets, and it continues to make Widdicomb reproductions at its factory in Manlius, N.Y.

The writing on your dresser shows the steps and dates of its construction. Your dresser is a part of a bedroom suite sold in 1912. A seven-piece Widdicomb tiger maple bedroom suite recently sold for $750 at auction.

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