... About Antiques, Coins, Collectibles and Banknotes – Giamer Antiques and Collectibles

September 04, 2014

Collecting Small Antique Boxes


Ever walk into an antique shop or through a flea market and wonder why so many small boxes? Ever say to yourself those are really neat and I wonder what they are? Well, boxes have always had their charm and small antique boxes with original artwork are widely sought after collectibles. N. Schiffer, who recently published the book Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies & Society, 1700-1880; in May 2003 writes, “The box represents great temptation. "Open me" it says, and humans cannot resist the invitation; its charm is overwhelming.”

This article discusses collecting such treasures, the market conditions, prices, and the future of the hobby. The focus is on collecting small boxes with original decorations/artwork mostly from the 19th centuries. Such collectibles will always be an attractive hobby for millions of people all over the world and prices of small boxes will continue to rise.

Collecting small antique boxes is an endless field of enjoyment and pursuit. There are many types and varieties of boxes. One could collect by type of box (snuff box, match safe, nutmeg grater, vinaigrettes, pill boxes, etc.), collect according to decoration style (enamel, miniature paintings, engravings, repousse, etc.), or by type of material (ivory, wood, silver, gold, etc.). As a collectible, boxes range in price from a few dollars to several hundreds or thousands depending on age, artwork, maker, condition and material of construction. One cannot walk into an antique shop without seeing several small boxes of different varieties and invariably antique shows and auctions will have many boxes to offer.

Small antique boxes encompass all types of utilitarian boxes, which are made of various materials and are highly decorated. In many cases these boxes were a reflection of the status of its owner. They were made of expensive materials and hand decorated for the biggest impact. The earliest antique boxes currently available to the collector are from the late eighteenth century. Earlier boxes are hard to come by since they have either been destroyed, are in museums, or in private collections.

The earliest available boxes are nutmeg graters. These were made so that people of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century could carry nutmeg (worth their weight in gold in those times) in their pockets and grate it, when needed, into their drinks. These are normally made out of gold, silver, wood, or tin. Such boxes are highly collectible and range in price from less than a 100 dollars for a tin box, to several thousands for a silver one. These boxes normally have hinged lids and a steel grater inside. Box shaped silver nutmeg graters are usually priced between $1,000 and $1,500, while silver combination nutmeg grater corkscrew costs as high as $10,000. These boxes have been increasing in price lately and are becoming harder to find. “Cash in your 401K and invest the money in nutmeg graters” said Ron Pook of Pook & Pook Auctions in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, recently, after auctioning a large collection of nutmeg graters and realizing much higher than expected prices for these small beauties.


English, 1878 nutmeg grater in the form of a seashell, made in Birmingham England by Hilliard & Thomaston retail value $1,600.



Snuffboxes are the most collected small boxes. They were very common in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and were highly decorated. These were made from all types of materials including papier-mâché, silver, gold, pewter, enameled copper, tortoise shell, wood, and horn. These ranged in size from very small to be carried in a lady’s purse, medium size to be carried in a gentleman’s pocket, to the larger ones which are known as table snuffboxes. They have tight fitting lids, which could be hinged or of the lift-off variety. They range in price from $30 for a plain oval papier-mâché box from the US civil war era, $2,000 for a papier-mâché hand painted box made in the Stobwasser Works in Braunschweig Germany in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s, to over $10,000 for an antique (late 1700s) gold French box with painted enamel decoration. Again, the value of such boxes is highly dependant on the age, material, artwork and of course condition.


Ivory snuffbox with a signed hand painted miniature of woman on ivory within a bezel and covered by glass, retail value $350. Probably early 1800’s.




The smallest collectible boxes are the Vinaigrettes. These normally measure about one and a half inches by one inch and less than half an inch in height. They usually have a hinged lid and a hinged grill inside to hold a sponge saturated with an aromatic liquid. A lady or a gentleman would keep these on their person and would be taken out and smelled when an objectionable odor was in the air or when the lady fainted. Silver vinaigrettes are sometimes collected based on the decoration of the grill. The most common are floral decorations. Animal based decorations are scarce, while musical themes and human based decoration is the scarcest. The price of these beautiful collectible boxes is highly dependant on the condition, the type of grill decoration, and the external decoration. Enameled silver vinaigrettes cost about $800-$1,000, while a plain silver one from mid 1820 made in London, England by William Elliott with a floral grill will cost $350-$450, depending on its condition.


1848 vinaigrette, sterling silver, Birmingham, England, by Hilliard & Thomason with foliate design grill, retail value $350.



Matches in the old days were notorious for self-igniting. Not to worry, the match safe or vesta took care of this problem by putting the matches in a solid metal box with a striker on the bottom to light the matches. These small boxes come into many varieties and are usually very well decorated. These are normally flat and have a hinged lid. Additionally there are many figural match safes, which are very desirable by the collector. They vary in price from about $70-$100 for a base metal late 1800’s with a photo on celluloid decoration, about $350 for a figural elephant’s head match safe, to $1,000- $2,000 for a sterling silver vesta made in Birmingham, England by the famous silversmith Nathaniel Mills with a repousse castle which is known or identified (so called castle top).


 Late 19th century Nickel plated match safe in the form of an elephant’s head, retail value $350.



The pillbox is another very small collectible box. These highly useful boxes are still being made and used today. Pillboxes were made from silver, gold, copper, and celluloid. Italian micro-mosaic decorated copper boxes are some of the more desirable. These boxes normally have tight fitting lids, which are either hinged or lift-off. Silver and gold boxes decorated by either enameling or repousse are the most expensive. These can range in price from $200 to $400 for a late 1700s French sterling silver box with repousse decoration to about $50-$70 for an early 1900s micro-mosaic decorated Italian pillbox.


Late 18th century French sterling silver pillbox with repousse decoration, retail value $350.





As you can see the field of small box collecting is endless and would require several volumes to effectively cover it. The most exciting aspect of being a collector of small antique boxes is the fact that there will always be new finds or one-of-a-kind specimen never seen before. Such finds are what makes collecting these small beauties so popular. Several photos are presented with this article to illustrate some of the points made here.




      • Celluloid (French, Trade Mark), tough flammable plastic composed mostly of cellulose nitrate and camphor.
      • Enamel, made by fusing a paste of powdered glass to a metal surface (can be gold, silver, copper, or bronze).
      • Micro-Mosaic, a design accomplished by using small cut pieces of glass and attaching them to a metal surface in artful arrangements, usually floral design (some times referred to as Millefiori).
      • Painted enamel, a picture or design is hand-painted onto an enamel background.
      • Papier-Mâché (French Word meaning chewed paper), normally a material made from rag or combination rag and linen pulp pressed together then painted and lacquered.
      • Repousse (French word meaning pushed), a decoration in relief on metal done by hammering the reverse side.
      • Vinaigrette (French word meaning small vinegar), a small box containing aromatic smelling liquids on a sponge.


         Suggested Reading:

        1.  Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970
        2. Brian Cole, Collecting for Tomorrow “Boxes”, BPC Publishers, Ltd. UK 1976
        3. John Bedford, All Kinds of Small Boxes, Walker and Company, NY 1964
        4. Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes- From the 18th to the 20th Century, Macdonald & Co. Publishers, Ltd. London, UK 1978
        5. Bernard Hughes, English Snuff-Boxes, Mac Gibbon & Kee, London, UK 1971
        6. Detlev Richter, Lacquered Boxes, Schiffer Publishing Co., West Chester, PA 1989
        7. Eric Delieb, Silver Boxes, Exeter Books, NY 1979
        8. David Armstrong, Russian Lacquer Boxes, Forkis Publishers, Moscow, Russia 1992
        9. Henry and Sidney Berry-Hill, Antique Gold Boxes, Their Lore and Their Lure, Abelard Press, NY 1953
        10. Clare le Corbeiller, European and American Snuff Boxes “1720-1830, The Viking Press, NY 1966.

        September 04, 2014

        A Numismatic Journey Through Egyptian History


        This article represents an overview of Egyptian Islamic history based on a journey through gold Islamic coins minted in Egypt. The journey begins in 170 AH (786 AD) and ends at the fall of the Ottoman Empire and their rule of Egypt during World War I in 1335 AH (1916 AD), approximately 1200 years of the most interesting times in Egypt and the Mediterranean basin. Although gold coins are no longer used in trade, they are still being minted in Egypt strictly for the collectors’ market.

        The Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt in 20 AH (642 AD). At the time the nascent Islamic nation did not have a monetary system and did not strike gold coins, instead the conquering Arabs used the Byzantine monetary system already existing in Egypt and the Sassanian monetary system already existing in Iran with minor modifications. In 77 AH (699 AD) Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan the Umayyad caliph instituted a monetary system and began striking the first Islamic coins including the gold Dinar. The dinar weighed 4.25 grams, or one mithqal, of the highest purity gold possible. At the time the center of power and the main gold coin mint was located in Dimishq (current day Damascus in Syria). However, gold coins were not struck in Egypt during the Umayyad reign.

        In 116 AH the Abbasid revolt began and resulted in ending the Umayyad rule in 132 AH. This ultimately moved the center of power to Madinat al-Salam (current day Baghdad in Iraq). Relocation of the center of power and the fact the Islamic empire now extended from Spain in the west to India and China in the east necessitated that additional mints be established in other parts of the empire to support the vibrant economy which was developing at the time. In addition, at that time substantial amount of the gold was mined in West Africa and a considerable amount of it was brought east to the Abbasid center of power through the Sahara and up the Nile. The Caliphs, needed to strike coins to satisfy the Egyptian economy started a mint in Fustat to strike Dinars initially and other coins eventually.




        170 AH (786 AD) – The caliph Harun Al Rashid minted the first gold dinars in Misr/Egypt. These were struck without mint name and anonymously, but normally they had the name of the governor of Egypt or were dedicated to the caliph on the bottom of the obverse. The gold coins have no likeness of human or animal figures in keeping with Islamic shari’ah (religious norms). The only decoration on the coins was in the writing, which was in the Kufic calligraphy. See Figure 1.



        Figure 1: Gold Dinar, 171 AH, Anonymous for Harun al-Rashid with name of Musa the governor of Egypt cited, no mint name.


        196 AH- Al-Ma’mun, the son of al-Rashid struck gold dinars in Egypt with his name despite the fact that he was not the official Caliph. His brother al-Amin was the Caliph at the time. Al-Ma’mun killed his brother al-Amin in 198 AH and ascended the throne. He established the rights of Sikka (the right to be named on coinage) and of Khutba (the right to be mentioned in the Friday prayer sermon) for the ruler/Caliph. At that time some of the coins minted in Egypt were labeled Duribh Fee Misr, where Misr is current day Fustat, the older part of Cairo. In 214 AH including the mint name on the coins became the norm and was used from then on.


        232 AH- The caliph Al-Mutawakkil started the custom of adding the name of the heir apparent to the coins.  See Figure 2.


        240 AH- The strict weight standard (4.25 grams) for gold dinars was abandoned around that time and the weight of the dinar was allowed to fluctuate. Coin exchange became based on weight rather than count. Gold coins were viewed as ingots of gold and the name of the ruler on the coin was a certification as to the quality of the gold. This lasted until the times of the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay.


        Figure2 Gold Dinar, 239 AH, al-Mutawakkil, citing the name of his heir Abu ‘Abd Allah, minted in Misr.




        266 AH (868 AD) - Ahmed Ibn Tulun became the ruler of Egypt and gained the right of having his descendants rule after him from the caliph in Baghdad. He struck the first coins in his name as ruler of Egypt in 266 AH. These coins were similar to the Abbasid coins prevalent at the time. The gold coins were of the highest quality and became accepted in the Mediterranean basin as legal tender. Ahmad’s gold coins are rather common and excellent examples exist. See Figure 3.


        Figure 3: Gold Dinar, 270 AH, Ahmad Ibn Tulun, citing the Caliph al-Moufou’ad Eila Allah, minted in Misr.


        Again, the Tulunid coins struck in Egypt were marked as “Durib fee Misr.” Three of Ahmed’s descendants succeeded him Khamaraweyah, Jaysh and Harun. The only rare coins from that era are those struck by Jaysh ibn Khamaraweyah ibn Ahmad (Jaysh son of Khamaraweyah son of Ahmad) who ruled for less than one year during 282 AH.


        ABBASIDS (again)


        292 AH (905 AD) - The Tulunid dynasty ended and the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad regained Egypt once more. Gold coins of the Caliph al-Qahir struck in Egypt are rather scarce.

        323 AH-The Caliph al-Radi, struck the last Abbasid gold dinars in Egypt around that time.




        325 AH (937 AD) - Muhamad Ibn Tughj was granted the right to rule Egypt and for his descendants to rule after him from the Caliph in Baghdad.  He began minting coins in his name, around 331 AH, and took the title Ikhshid (Prince/Ruler). The design of Ikhshidid gold coins was similar to the Abbasid coin design and, again, was struck in Misr and Felestine (current day Palistine).

        355 AH- Kafur, a slave in the Ikhshid court became the actual ruler of Egypt and struck coins in the name of the young heir of the Ikhsidid throne with the letter “ڪ” (Kaf) on the obverse and omitted the word Ikhshid. These coins are rather scarce since his actual rule was rather short.




        358 AH (968 AD) - The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 358 AH and established their coinage. The Fatimid coins were of a new design and departed from the Abbasid coin design. In order to establish legitimacy for their dinars in their North African Empire, the Fatimid dictated that taxes are to be paid with Fatimid dinars and no longer be paid with Abbasid and Ikhshidid dinars. This resulted in the existing dinars losing value in the market. See Figure 4.

        The Fatimid built their new capital city in Egypt and called it al-Qahira (Cairo). Fatimid coins continued to be struck in Misr and added a mint in Alexandria. Additionally, late in al-Mustansir’s rule coins began showing al-Qahira as mint name in addition to Misr and al-Askandaryah (Alexandria). Many of the coins struck in Cairo (al-Qahira) bore a modifier to the name of the city. These were adjectives such as Al Mahrousah (the guarded) and Al Mu’azziah (the respected).


        Figure 4: Gold Dinar, 519 AH, al’Amer bi Ahkam Ellah (known as Al Imam al-Mansur), minted in al-Mu’izziya al-Qahira (Cairo).


        427-487 AH- Al-Mustansir, the Fatimid Caliph ascended the throne at the age of one year old and ruled for 60 years. Al-Mustanisr gold dinars are one of the most common Islamic gold coins struck in Egypt, with many high quality examples surviving to date. His reign represents one of the most stable and prosperous times in Egypt. Art and economy flourished and the coins of this time were of excellent quality and considered the standard in the Middle East.

        495 AH- Al-Amer times saw many problems and increase in the influence of the grand viziers. The European crusades occupying Palestine began issuing counterfeit gold dinars, which looked like al-Amer’s dinars. These dinars were of debased gold and much lower weight, which resulted in compromising the international gold standard based in Egypt at the time.

        524 AH An Interregnum period ensued where the Grand Viziers took over the power, imprisoned the heir to the Caliph and struck coins in the name of the expected and the expecting. These coins normally struck in al-Qahira al Mu’aziah or al-Qahira al-Mahrousah are very rare and valuable.

        526-567 AH    The later days of the Fatimid rule were days of weakness where the grand Viziers had the most influence and the Caliph was a puppet. These last Caliphs’ gold coins were of lower quality in general and are less common than those of the earlier Fatimid Caliphs.




        567AH (1171 AD) - The Seljuq of West Persia used Turkish Commanders in their army. One of them Zangi bin Aq Sonqur established the Zangid dynasty in Basra. Nur al-Din Muhammad bin Zangi took Damascus from the crusaders and assisted al-Adid, the last of the Fatimid Caliphs in warding off the invasion of Egypt by the Christian king of Jerusalem. The Zangid army invaded Egypt then, and established Shirkuk, the Kurdish commander of the Zangid army as vassal. Shirkuk died in a short period and his brother Salah al-din ibn Ayyoub (known as Saladin to the Europeans) becomes the vassal for the Zangid king. Saladin struck gold dinars in the name of Mahmoud ibn Zangi. These are very rare gold coins.

        570 AH- Mahmoud ibn Zangi died and Saladin usurped the Zangids and declared himself Sultan of Egypt. He struck coins in his own name. The gold dinars, which had the same design as the late Fatimid dinar, are fairly common especially those struck in al-Qahira. Saladin claim to fame was defeating the crusaders in Hettin and entering into several treaties with them, thus allowing some times of peace in Egypt.

         575-648 AH- Upon Saladin’s death his descendants were unable to maintain peace with the crusaders and the Ayyubids period proved to be difficult economically. The wars against the crusades pressured the economy. The Ayyubids continued to maintain mints in Egypt at both Al-Qahira and Al-Askandaryah.

        In 625 AH al Kamel Mohamed initiated the use of Nasskhy calligraphy for all gold coins and did away with the Kufic calligraphy, which had been the standard since the beginning of Islamic coins minting in 77 AH by the Umayyad. Nasskhy calligraphy is still very common and is used throughout the Arab world today. See Figure 5.



        Figure 5: Gold Dinar, 631 AH, al-Kamel Mohammad I, Naskhi calligraphy, minted in al-Qahira.





        648 AH (1250 AD) The Mamluks, who were slaves, usurped their masters the Ayyubids. The first woman to rule Islamic Egypt was Shajaret al-Durr widow of the last Ayyubid ruler. She took over governing and began striking coins with her own title instead of the Ayyubid ruler’s name. Shajaret al Durr ruled Egypt alone for approximately 3 months. Her coins are some of the rarest Islamic coins of Egypt.

        When the Caliph in Baghdad showed his displeasure with the fact that a woman is ruling Egypt, Shajaret al Durr married Izz al-Din Aybak. Shajaret al Durr and Izz al-Din Aybak ruled Egypt together and used a puppet ruler from the Ayyubid dynasty by the name of Al Ashraf Musa. Coins struck in the name of al-Ashraf Musa are very rare (almost as rare as Shajaret al Durr’s).

        The Mamluks were Turkish and Circassian soldiers enslaved by the Ayyubids and used to run the military. They ruled Egypt and most of Palestine and Syria for over 250 years until the Ottoman invaded their territories. There were two branches of mamluks who ruled consecutively, these were the Bahari and the Burji presumably named as such based on the location of their barracks within Cairo. The Bahari, or the sea or river dwellers ruled from 648 AH until 783 AH (1250 to 1382 AD), while the Burji, or the tower dwellers ruled from783 until 923 (1382 AD to 1518 AD).

        The mamluk period was defined by a few of the kings having prosperous rules with large wealth accumulating in the state coffers, while most had short rule and violent death due to internal strive and intrigue between the various mamluk factions. Due to the short rule of many of the kings/sultans their coins are rare due to the limited times of striking. In general terms most of the coins were poorly struck and quality control of the gold coinage was practically non-existent especially in the later years.

        The Mamluks or slave kings wielded quite a bit of power even during the Ottoman rule of Egypt. Their power was finally terminated when Mohammed Ali killed the last of them in the early 1800 at the Cairo Citadel, in what is known as Mazbahatt al Qala’a or the massacre of the citadel.

        658 AH  Al Zahir Baybars, the Bahari Mamluk ruler, used a heraldic Lion Passant on all of his coins. This represents the first time the likeness of a living creature is seen on gold Islamic coins in Egypt. Baybars times were of great prosperity and Egypt’s location on the routes of spice commerce between the west (Europe) and the east (India) resulted in the Egyptian coffers being filled with tax and duty moneys collected on the commerce crossing through Egypt. See Figure 6.



        Figure 6: Gold Dinar, 664 AH, al-Zahir Rukn al-din Baybars, Heraldic Lion, minted in al-Qahira.


        801 AH  Faraj and his successor Shaykh reigns represented difficult economic times in Egypt with monetary problems. In addition, the problems associated with the world’s economy, especially the onset of what is refered to sometimes as the “Great Bullion famine” where the world’s known mines were supposedly unable to provide enough gold and silver to meet the demand in Europe, resulted in the monetary chaos in Egypt. Shaykh then assigned Al Maqrizzi to study the monetary history in Egypt and ways past problems were addressed, resulting in the publication of “Shezur al ‘auqud fee zikr al nuqued” one of al-Maqrizzi’s foremost numismatic works.

        During the reign of Shaykh, the use of the mint in Alexandria stopped. All coins struck in Egypt, from then on, were struck in al-Qahira (Cairo) or Misr.


        825 AH  Al Ashraf Barsbay initiated monetary reform and created the Ashrafi, a gold dinar based on the Venetian Ducat, which represented the monetary standard in Mediterranean basin. The ashrafi was a coin of standard measurement; 15-18mm in diameter, standard weight of 3.3-3.5 grams, and standard appearance. Both obverse and reverse had four lines of writing with the reverse having the words “La ellah Ella Allah, Mohammad Rassul Allah, Arssaluh, Bill Huda”, while the obverse has the name of the Sultan, the mint and date. See Figure 7.

        906 AH  By the times of Qansuh al Ghouri, Europe identified an alternate route around the horn of Africa to move commerce back and forth to India and the East. Trade through Egypt dropped significantly and the country fell on hard economic times. Coins were made of debased gold and silver and the ashrafi was no longer accepted as a coin for world trade.


        Figure 7: Gold Ashrafi, (8)35 AH, al-Ashraf Abdul Naser Barsbay, minted in al-Qahira




        923 AH (1518 AD) Selim I invaded Egypt and defeated the last of the Mamluk sultans, Qansuh II.

        926 AH  Suleyman I (Suleyman the magnificent) ascended the throne. He maintained the ashrafi weight standard of 3.3 – 3.5 grams, with a larger diameter (about 19-21mm). These coins are referred to as Ashrafi, Altin or Sultani, with the name Sultani being the most commonly used. The coins had the name of the sultan, the mint name (Misr) and his accession date to the throne on the obverse, but no indication of the date it was actually struck. See Figure 8.


        Figure 8: Gold Sultani, 926 AH, Suleyman I, minted in Misr.


        1003 AH Muhammad III took the title of “Sultan al Barain wa Khaqan al Bahrain, Al Sultan Ibn Al Sultan” literally translated to “Sultan of the two lands (presumably Iraq and Turkey) and ruler of the two seas (presumably the black sea and the Mediterranean) sultan son of sultan.” The title was struck on the reverse of the gold coins, while the name of the Sultan, his linage, mints and accession date were on the obverse.

        1106 AH Mustafa II introduced the “Toughrah” or the sultan’s signature or seal in a decorative calligraphy on the obverse instead of writing out the Sultan’s name.

        1115 AH Ahmed III reformed the monetary system and introduced the first “Zeri Mahbub” (beloved gold). These coins weigh 2.6 grams. See Figure 9.


         Figure 9: Gold Zeri Mahbub, 1143 AH, Mahmud I, with Toughrah, minted in Misr.


        1187 AH Abdul Hamid I introduced the year of reign (reignal year) to define the year the coin was struck. The reignal year was normally located on the obverse over the “ن” (the letter noon) in the word Ibn. See Figure 10.

         Rulers such as Murad III, Selim III and Mustafa III, who reigned for extended period of time, have struck coins with different designs or decoration. Such rulers’ coins represent interesting collecting challenges and offer the opportunity for a collector to focus on their coins exclusively.

        1255 AH Abdul Majid issued gold coins in 5, 10, 50 and 100 piaster denominations. The 100 piaster or one pound weighed 8.5 grams of 87.5% purity gold and had a diameter of 21 mm. These coins were used extensively in the cotton trade in Egypt. The coins also maintained the Toughrah and denomination on the obverse; while the reverse was a simple description of the mint, accession date and year of reign of the Sultan.



        Figure 10: Gold Zeri Mahbub, 1187 AH, Abdul Hamid I, year 2 of his reign noted over noun on obverse, minted in Misr.


        1300 AH (1882 AD) The British invaded Egypt and the descendants of Mohamed Ali, who ruled Egypt under the protection of the British continued to use the Ottoman coins as legal tender. The Ottoman gold coins continued to be struck in Egypt (Misr) with the name of the Ottoman Sultan, his accession date, and year of reign.

        1335 AH (1916 AD) During WWI as the fall of the Ottoman empire became apparent, the British named Hussain Kamel as Sultan of Egypt and struck the first gold coins in his name in England. These were of the 100 piaster or one pound denomination. Smaller denominations were struck of silver and base metals. From then on, gold coins struck in Egypt or on behalf of Egypt were struck as commemorative coins in limited quantities and strictly for the collecting market. Such coins were no longer considered useful for trade and payment of debt. See Figure 11.



        Figure 11: Gold 100 piasters, 1335 AH, Hussain Kamel, minted in England but indicate Misr Sultanate (Egyptian Sultanate).


        I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Mr. Stephen Album, who took the time to review this article and to Mr. Youssef Mishriki, who introduced me to Islamic coins and opened my eyes to the world of ancient coin collecting and still guides me and gives me valuable advise.


        September 04, 2014

        American Antique Primitive Wooden Boxes: A Hot Area of Collecting


        Since the beginning of time humans have always used boxes to store, protect from both damage and theft, organize, and/or display their belongings, whether precious, perishable, small or large. The ancient cultures made boxes for their games, their jewelry, their food, their money, and their papers. The ancient Egyptians used boxes to store food as well as implements and the innards of their dead to be used in the after life.

        Boxes have always had a mystique about them. Human history abounds with famous boxes such as the mythological Pandora’s box, the political ballot box and the religious donation box. All these boxes are part of our culture and have fascinating stories associated with them. Ancient cultures developed the art of making boxes early on, and to the trained eye a box can easily be related to the culture that created it. Early boxes were normally made of materials found abundantly in nature. The requirements for such materials were rigidity, resistance to dampness, easily shapeable, and durability.

        Wood, being a solid material with many of the required properties for box making as well as being one of the most abundant and easiest to work with, lends itself very well to such an application. The fact that wood can be obtained in large pieces also makes it very well suited for making large boxes. It also has an inherent natural beauty associated with its grain giving wooden boxes a decorative property that many other materials do not provide.

        While large boxes and chests were the most common in the early days of American modern history, the economic prosperity in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century resulted in people’s increased ability to acquire and purchase luxury items. Thus the use of smaller boxes to protect, organize, and display these luxuries became more common as the middle class began to prosper. In addition, such prosperity allowed people to purchase foodstuff and perishables in large quantities, which necessitated the acquisition of storage boxes for use in the kitchen.

        Generally softwoods are easier to work with than hardwoods. These were very abundant in the Northeastern part of the US, where the early settlers lived. These woods were not inherently as decorative as hardwoods and thus when used to make boxes they were further decorated to enhance their beauty and value. Painting them, drawing on them, or covering them with decorative paper was the method of choice to decorate such boxes.

        Many of these boxes depend on their shape, coloring, and metal straps or nails as the means of decoration. They usually develop a nice patina with age, which is probably the only way to authenticate them. Their simplicity and the fact that many were destroyed in use or by rodents in the old farmstead makes them difficult to find and very desirable. Those retaining original decoration or authentic patina are rare and valuable.

        This article looks at some of the primitive utilitarian boxes or containers, which were very common in American homes in the late 18th and through the 19th centuries and are becoming highly collectible. These boxes, which were used to store and protect all types of staples and valuables, were normally made of common woods abundant in the Northeastern US such as pine, poplar, walnut, and maple. They were held together with nails, wooden pegs, metal straps and/or wooden straps.  They were often decorated by painting with vegetable based paints in monochrome colors and hand decorated with floral or country scenes to increase their aesthetics. Such boxes were prevalent in the Northeastern part of the United States with many coming from the Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York. Those made in Pennsylvania had a distinct German (so called Pennsylvania Dutch) character and were highly decorated. Pennsylvania German decorated boxes are highly collectible and usually command very high prices.

        Examples of primitive boxes include sugar buckets, otherwise known as firkins, pantry and spice boxes made of bent wood, Shaker boxes, a generic name for simple and austere boxes made within the shaker communities in New England, New York and Kentucky, miniature chests, and candle boxes.

        Pantry and spice boxes

        These boxes were used in the kitchen and were normally round in shape and had lift-off lids. They were constructed using thin pine or maple sheets, which were bent to create the round shape of the box. Such boxes came in all sizes to accommodate the various quantities to be stored.  Shaker boxes are one example of this type of box used extensively in the kitchens of American homes.


        In the 1700’s these boxes were made individually by hand. However, the advent of mechanization in the 1800’s allowed mass production. The difference between handmade and machine-made boxes can be detected by carefully inspecting the box and its construction. Handmade boxes are normally rarer than the machine made boxes and command a premium.

        Attributing the handmade boxes is very difficult, since they are normally unsigned and have no markings that would allow identification. On the other hand many of the mass produced boxes were stamped with a patent date or the name of the manufacturer. Purchasing the older handmade boxes in estate auctions is probably the best and safest way to acquire them, since they would have been in the family for generation and such provenance would guarantee their authenticity.

        Shaker boxes were made of bent maple and pine, which was used for the top and the bottom. These boxes have fingers, which are nailed to the sides of the box to hold the box together. They were used in the pantry to store foodstuff. They developed nice patina with age and have been imitated by many makers over time. Figure 1 is Small Shaker fingered herb box from the mid 19th century. It has a lift-off lid initialed "BC". It measures 3½” in length, 2” wide and 1½” high. Side is maple, top and bottom made of pine. These boxes are rather rare and command a high price in auctions. This specific example sold for $150.00 at auction.




        Painted pantry boxes were also very common and in todays market command a relatively high price especially if the colors are still evident and bright. Certain colors, such as yellow are less common than red and green and usually such examples are scarcer. Figure 2 is an example of a pantry box painted with a dark brownish red vegetable paint circa 1860. The box is held together with nails and measures 7 3/4" in diameter and 3 1/2" in height. Price $100-$200.



        Sets of Spice boxes consisting of a large box with 7 small boxes fitting inside were a very common occurrence in the kitchens of American homes. These boxes were constructed similar to the pantry boxes discussed above and were manufactured in the North East mostly in Newark, New Jersey during the period of 1860-1900. These were always labeled with stenciled lettering to indicate their content. The large box would be labeled with the word “SPICE”, while the small boxes were labeled as to the spice they contained (e.g. PEPPER, GINGER, Etc.). Figure 3 is an example of such a box from the late 1800s or early 1900s. The large box measures 7 ¾” in diameter and is 3 ½” high, while the small boxes measure 2 3/8” in diameter and are 3 1/8” in height. Retail price $100-$150.



        Firkin or Sugar Bucket


        The firkin, also known as “Sugar Bucket”, is a round wooden container in the shape of a bucket with a lid and a handle. These were equipped with a snug-fitting wooden lid and were used in the kitchen for storing dry staples mainly powders such as sugar and flour. Earlier examples have wooden loops for a handle while later ones had wire handles which were factory made. The bucket was held together with wooden or metal straps on the top and bottom and nails or staples.

        Figure 4 shows a 19th century a Salmon colored Firkin. It is made of tapered oak slats with wrought iron bands, a lid fitted with a porcelain finial, and a wrought iron and wooden handle. It measures 10 ¼” high and is 9 ½” diameter on the bottom and 8” diameter on top. This firkin was made in Pennsylvania, most likely in Lancaster County. The fact that this box retained its original color makes it highly desirable and such boxes would realize $800-$1,000 at auction.



        Miniature Chests


        Miniature chests are another type of American boxes that were very common in the 19th century. Figure 5 is an 1830 Pennsylvania Sheraton tiger maple and cherry miniature blanket chest probably used to store valuables or important papers, or may have been a toy. It has a lift lid over paneled case supported by delicately turned feet. It measures 17½” in width, 13” in height, and is 9 ¾” deep. The chest was made in Lancaster County Pennsylvania and is unmarked. It is valued at $3,000 - $4,000. Other miniature chests of more common woods were usually painted with red or green background and decorated with tulips and other floral as well as foliate designs.



        Other Types of Boxes


        Candle boxes, rectangular boxes with tight fitting sliding lids, were made of wood, mostly pine, and were used to store candles and protect them from rodents. Such boxes were normally painted and covered with floral design, Pennsylvania Dutch drawings of tulips and distelfinks (legendary birds which combine features from petcocks and pheasants). In a recent auction, a 1790 box decorated with red background, a Pennsylvania German compass, floral and tulip designs, with red, blue, and green highlights attributed to John Drissel of Bucks County Pennsylvania sold for $75,000. Quality Americana collectibles, which are attributable, and have original decoration command very high prices at auctions. I am always amazed at how much such items bring.

        Pencil boxes, document boxes, toolboxes, apple boxes, cutlery boxes, and tobacco boxes are additional examples of these primitive wooden boxes and normally `cost less than $100. The exception is always if the artwork or the construction can be attributed to a known artist or maker. In such a case the box is much more valuable. Additionally, the condition of the box or the fact that the box retains most of its original decoration will highly affect its price. Figure 6 is an assortment of such boxes showing a candle box, pencil box, document box, painted small firkin, bent wood box with metal straps, and a small box with sliding lid and dovetailed construction.

        Collecting primitives and Americana items in general and primitive boxes in particular is becoming a very popular area. A couple of decades ago these were not sought after and as several of my long time collector friends tell me “in those days no one bought this stuff and they practically gave it away in auctions.” Now-a-days, prices for primitives increase from one auction to the next within the same time frame, indicating their increasing popularity. Several large and famous auction houses in the Eastern United States now specialize in American and primitives and even auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby dedicate entire auctions to such items. It is my opinion that primitive antique boxes will continue to be a hot collectible and increase in value with time as I have seen their value double and triple in the past 5 to 10 years.


      • Suggested Reading:
          1. Arene Bugen, 19th Century Wooden Boxes, Schieffer Publishing Ltd. Atglen, PA, 1997.
          2. Nina Fletcher Little, Neat and Tidy; Boxes and their Contents Used in Early American Households, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 2001.
          3. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania German Collection, 1982, reprint 1999.
          4. Don & Carol, Raycrafts Book of Country, Collector Books, Paducah, KY 1989.
          5. Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970.

          September 04, 2014

          Antique Decorated Papier-Mâché Boxes: A Favorite for Collectors

          It is mid morning at the regular weekly session of the local auction house. Prices are along the normal range and most of the items sold are glass, porcelain, primitives, and other small collectibles. Hammer prices are in the $10 to $200 range. Finally, the long awaited item comes up for auction. It is a 1840s Papier-mâché snuffbox. The box is 3 ½” in diameter and about ¾” high, with a large chunk missing on the inside lip. However, the lid is decorated with a hand painted miniature of Gen. Zack Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, the hero of the Mexican war. The bidding starts at $450.00 and ends at $1,500. The final price of the box is $1,650 including the 10% buyer premium. Everyone applauds.

          Normally such high prices are reserved for papier-mâché boxes of historical significance, such as those decorated with American, British, or French recognizable characters (e.g. Zachary Taylor, our 12th president, Admiral Wilson, Napoleon Bonaparte). However, other small boxes, which are decorated either by hand or using an applied drawing are highly sought after by collectors. Recently, examples of hand painted Russian papier-mâché boxes from the Lucy Maxym collection, nicely decorated with scenes from Russian Fairy Tales, sold in a New Jersey auction and realized very high prices. Of course these boxes were in excellent condition, with beautiful decorations by well-known artists and had provenance to boot. A 1924 hand painted papier-mâché box from Palekh, measuring 5” by 3 ¼”, and signed by Ivan Golikov sold for a hammer price of $3,000.


          What is it about these boxes that make them highly desirable?

          The beauty of the miniature paintings and decorations, the fact that these boxes survived for all these years, and the fact that they chronicled the European and American History in the period from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, makes them a favorite with collectors, art lovers, and history buffs. In addition, boxes decorated with high quality original artwork rival any miniature painting or for that matter masterpieces of the highest quality. For example, Russian lacquered boxes with miniatures depicting scenes from Russian fairy tales are truly pieces of art and are prized by both art and box collectors.

          Papier-mâché literally means paper that has been chewed. The process was developed in England in the 1700s and was lacquered as a way to compete with Far Eastern lacquer ware. The making of the material entailed extensive sanding between lacquer applications using pumice stone to give it an unrivaled smoothness. The smooth surface resulting from the process lends itself to painting. Once lacquer is applied on top of the painting, it gives the artwork a beautiful sheen and appearance and gives the material a stability and strength, which rivals other materials such as wood and metals, but is lighter. Lacquered papier-mâché was used to make furniture, plates, drinking implements, and boxes. These items were initially decorated with Oriental designs. However, little by little artists started to decorate these items with their own designs, which included miniature portraits, reproductions of painting masterpieces, landscapes and erotic subjects.


          Stobwasser, the father of papier-mâché lacquered boxes

          Hand painted lacquer boxes were perfected by Johann Heinrich Stobwasser in Braunschweig, Germany in the late 1700s. Stobwasser is credited with developing the lacquer and the technique to apply it to papier-mâché in order to obtain the appropriate sheen and durability. He established a manufactory in Brunschweig and the rest as they say is history. Several workers and apprentices from all over Europe worked in his factory and learned the secrets for making papier-mâché lacquered boxes. One such apprentice was Korobov from Russia who began a manufacturing operation near Moscow and was followed by his son-in-law Lukutin. Various competitive operations started around the Lukutin factory, most notably the Vishniakov’s. This eventually became the well-known Russian manufactory of “Fedoskino.” Fedoskino miniature decorated lacquer boxes, which are still being made, are the most highly sought after papier-mâché lacquer boxes from Russia today.


          Another well-known school for Russian miniature lacquered papier-mâché boxes is the Palekh School. Palekh was a center for making religious icons prior to the Bolshevik revolution. Once the communists took over, religious subjects were no longer desirable and the fathers of Palekh, under the leadership of Ivan Golikov, went to Fedoskino in the 1920s to learn the trade. Upon their return, they decided to shift their artwork to document Russian Fairy Tales and other secular subjects on lacquered papier-mâché surfaces and boxes. Their chronicling of Pushkin’s fairy tales on boxes is a highly desirable collectible and is still being made today. These boxes have an iconographic character to them, which is just breathtaking.


          The French and British are also known makers of Papier-mâché lacquered boxes

          In the mid 1700s the brothers Martin, of Paris, France, perfected the art of making items from pressed board (remember Papier-mâché was a British invention) and lacquered them with plant-extracted resins to give birth to Vernis Martin ware. They established a business for making furniture and decorated lacquer boxes. These normally have crimson and dark green background with pastoral scenes in the Rococo style.

          John Taylor of Birmingham England used the invention by John Stalker and George Parker of japanning or lacquering to make lacquered papier-mâché snuffboxes. Commercial production of papier-mâché boxes did not really come of age until the late 1700s when Henry Clay of Birmingham was granted his patent for using paper layers glued together instead of mashed paper, a much more efficient process of making papier-mâché. The early boxes were generally circular, about 4” in diameter and were lacquered in black inside and out then painted with the desired scene.

          How about the Americans?

          The United States is not well known for the manufacture of papier-mâché ware. In the period of 1850 through 1854 a factory in Litchfield, Connecticut, known as The Litchfield Manufacturing Company, produced the material and used it mainly in manufacturing clock cases. They did make a few boxes, which were decorated in the English style of the time. The factory was staffed with English immigrants, but since labor was rather scarce in this area of the country, the smoothness of these items left a lot to be desired. This was due to the fact that smoothness of the surface of papier-mâché items is obtained by a labor-intensive process of pumicing the surface, and hence the low quality. Boxes made by the Litchfield Manufacturing Company are rather difficult to find and rare. In addition, because of the fact that they were not marked as such, they are difficult to attribute. Papier-mâché boxes with American subject were produced in Europe, mainly England and France and exported to the American market. Thus the box with Zack Taylor discussed in the beginning of this article was probably made in England.


          Figural papier-mâché boxes are rare but a favorite among collectors

          Papier-mâché boxes were also decorated through shaping them into shoes, animals, books, and celestial figures. These boxes are usually small in size and are in high demand by collectors. They fetch high prices in auctions. Most common shape is the shoe, which come in two varieties, Victorian men and women shoes. Book shaped cigarette cases and match safes are also relatively common. Other shapes are very rare and very seldom come up in auctions.


          Artist Unknown (probably French); Card case, hinged lid, lacquered papier-mâché, hand painted with a floral design. Lined with velour and has ivory edges. 2½” x 3½” x 3/8”. Circa 1850s - Auction Price $175.00


          Variety of Papier-mâché boxes, their prices and Collectability

          Papier-mâché was used to make many types of boxes such as Tea Caddies, Jewelry boxes, Compacts, Spectacle Cases, Visiting Card Cases, Patch Boxes, Powder Boxes, and Snuffboxes. Papier-mâché lends itself very well to storing snuff and was relatively inexpensive when compared to gold or silver boxes, which were the favorite material for snuffboxes for the rich. Hence, snuffboxes are the most common papier-mâché boxes found/available.


          Artist Unknown (probably English); Match safe in the form of a Victorian Shoe, hinged lid inlayed with pewter decoration, 3”x 7/8”x 1 1/8” high. Circa 1840s - Auction Price $100


          Prices depend on subject, the artist and signature, condition, quality of the artwork, size and age. Prices quoted in this article are based on auction hammer prices and do not include the customary buyer premium.

          Prices for Stobwasser boxes range from $400 for an unsigned snuffbox, which would have been decorated by one of the many artists in Stobwasser’s factory, to $2,000 for a 1790 box signed by Stobwasser himself. Stobwasser boxes are difficult to come by, since most of the existing examples are either in museums or in private collections. See Figure 1 for an example of a snuffbox made in the Stobwasser Fabrik at the turn of the 19th century.

          Stobwasser Fabrik (Braunschweig, Germany); Rectangular snuffbox with hinged lid. Central miniature painting of a woman with a cape and a hat. 3 5/8”x 2 3/8”x 7/8”. Signed “Stobwasser fabric”, marked Clairene and numbered 1497 on both the body and lid. Circa early 1800s- Auction Price $450.00


          Vernis Martin boxes range in price from $500 to $1,500 depending on the condition, size, and decoration. On the other hand continental boxes with hand drawn subjects or scenes, which are unsigned, range in price from $80 to a $550.00 depending on size, quality of artwork, and condition. Figure 2 shows a Vernis Martin snuffbox with a hinged lid and a typical courting scene.


          Vernies Martin (France); Rectangular snuffbox, lacquered papier-mâché with a painting of Lovers and a servant looking on them and pouring a drink. Floral painting on the bottom and foliate design in red on side with a golden band. Hinged Lid, 3¼” x 2¼” x 13/16”. Circa 1760- Auction Price $500.00



          Russian lacquer boxes with hand-painted miniatures are still being made and are reasonably priced. As a collectible, they are certain to continue to be desirable and increase in price with time. Be wary of imitations that use applied photos instead of hand painted decoration. These are considered to be fakes by collectors. Old Russian lacquer boxes by Lukutin and Vishniakov are rather rare and difficult to find. A tea caddy by the Vishniakov factory measuring 4 ½” in diameter and 4” high, with a Troika (a three horse drawn carriage) would bring $150 to $200 in auction. Figure 3 shows one such box.


          Vishniakov (Russia); Round Tea Caddy, lift-off lid, lacquered papier-mâché, decorated with a painting of a summer troika, 4”1/2 x 4”, with restoration to the lid. Circa 1870- Auction Price $175.00



          Boxes decorated with scenes documenting significant historical figures or events are the most desirable. Normally such boxes are snuffboxes and are becoming harder to come by. Such boxes very seldom sell in auctions for less than $1,000 and depending on condition and the subject itself could command as much as $2,000 to $3,000.

          Papier-mâché boxes produced in the late 1700 and early 1800s, which were decorated with erotic scenes are becoming rare and difficult to find. Snuffboxes with such subjects are highly desirable and command high prices. A 3 ½” French (circa 1800) round snuffbox with an erotic scene on the inside of the lid and an innocuous applied drawing of a lady with a rosary on the outside of the lid, retails for $700 to $1,000.

          As for the future, there is no doubt that boxes made of lacquered papier-mâché and decorated with hand painted or applied drawings will always be a highly collectible item. The fact that many new high quality boxes are still being made in Russia will keep the interest in the hobby high and will allow new comers of modest means to enter the field. This will guarantee that the hobby will continue to thrive and the prices of such collectibles will rise with time. Newer Russian lacquer boxes, those made from 1965 on, sell at auction for as low as $15 and very seldom exceed $100 for the largest and finest examples, thus making them very collectible.


          Captions for Photos

          1. Figure 1, Stobwasser Fabrik (Braunschweig, Germany); Rectangular snuffbox with hinged lid. Central miniature painting of a woman with a cape and a hat. 3 5/8”x 2 3/8”x 7/8”. Signed “Stobwasser fabric”, marked Clairene and numbered 1497 on both the body and lid. Circa early 1800s- Auction Price $450.00
          2. Vernies Martin (France); Rectangular snuffbox, lacquered papier-mâché with a painting of Lovers and a servant looking on them and pouring a drink. Floral painting on the bottom and foliate design in red on side with a golden band. Hinged Lid, 3¼” x 2¼” x 13/16”. Circa 1760- Auction Price $500.00
          3. Vishniakov (Russia); Round Tea Caddy, lift-off lid, lacquered papier-mâché, decorated with a painting of a summer troika, 4”1/2 x 4”, with restoration to the lid. Circa 1870- Auction Price $175.00
          4. Artist Unknown (probably French); Card case, hinged lid, lacquered papier-mâché, hand painted with a floral design. Lined with velour and has ivory edges. 2½” x 3½” x 3/8”. Circa 1850s - Auction Price $175.00
          5. Artist Unknown (probably English); Match safe in the form of a Victorian Shoe, hinged lid inlayed with pewter decoration, 3”x 7/8”x 1 1/8” high. Circa 1840s - Auction Price $100


          • Japanning: Refers to the method of producing lacquered furniture and other items, making them similar to those purchased from the orient, especially Japan, by coating them with varnish and polishing when dry. Normally these items were decorated with oriental motifs and subjects.
          • Lacquer: Originated from the use of the sap of the Lac-tree, in China, to protect almost any material by coating it with the sap and letting it harden to a semi-transparent film. The Europeans were able to develop materials and concussions with the same capabilities in order to compete with the Chinese trade in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
          • Match Safe: A small box meant to isolate matches in case they start on their own. These boxes had tight fitting lids, normally hinged, and a striker, normally on the bottom to provide enough friction to light the matches.
          • Papier-mâché (French word meaning chewed paper), normally a material made from rag or combination rag and linen pulp pressed together then painted and lacquered.
          • Provenance (French): In antiques collecting indicating an item with a known origin or derivation.
          • Pumice (n and v): Noun; a volcanic rock, which is light and porous. Verb; to clean and polish with pumice stone.
          • Snuffbox: Seventeenth century boxes meant to hold tobacco and or snuff. Originally, they were equipped with rasps so that the user could grate the tobacco. Rasps were eliminated in the late eighteenth century with the advent of prepared snuff. They come in various sizes to fit in purses, pockets or large enough to sit on a table.
          • Vernis Martin: Today, it is a reference of a distinctive lacquering and style of decorating all types of objects, including furniture and small boxes. The name is of the Martin brothers who in the mid eighteenth century had a monopoly in France to make lacquered objects in the Chinese and Japanese styles. 

          Suggested Reading:

          1. Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970
          2. Detlev Richter, Lacquered Boxes, Schiffer Publishing Co., West Chester, PA 1989
          3. David Armstrong, Russian Lacquer Boxes, Forkis Publishers, Moscow, Russia 1992
          4. Clare le Corbeiller, European and American Snuff Boxes “1720-1830, The Viking Press, NY 1966.
          5. Lucy Maxym, Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales, Corners of the World, Farmingdale, NY 1981.
          6. Lucy Maxym, Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales, Vol. II, Corners of the World, Farmingdale, NY 1986.
          7. Vladimir Guliayev, The Fine Art of Russian Lacquered Miniatures, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA 1993.
          8. Brian Cole, Collecting for Tomorrow “Boxes”, BPC Publishers, Ltd. UK 1976


            September 04, 2014

            Antique Enameled Boxes: The Jewels of Eighteenth Century Europe

            You are holding a small and delicate box in your hand. The lid is decorated with a miniature painting of a singing bird perched on a tree branch. It looks like it is made of porcelain and has a metal jointed closure. The inside mirror on the back of the lid is clouded from age. You recognize beauty in this small treasure. What you don’t know is how old it is? Who made it? Where it was made? And what it was used for?

            Well, it turns out you are holding an English enameled patch box. The box was probably made circa 1760 in south Staffordshire. It is made of copper to which enamel has been applied, then hand painted with a miniature. The mirror is for the user to look at the spot on his or her face where the patch would be applied. Many collectors would refer to the box as a Battersea patch box. This article attempts to show how to identify such items and estimate their value.



            English patch box, Circa 1760, enamel on brass, decorated with a miniature painting of a singing bird on a fence, has the words “Esteem the Giver”, cracks in the enamel, clouded mirror, dimensions 1 5/8” x 1 3/8” x 7/8”, unmarked, Auction hammer price $240.00


            Enameling as a Jewelry making technique  

            Enameling, the technique of fusing glass to metal backing, is an old art form used over the ages to create beautiful jewelry and objects of virtu. The enameling technique consists of applying a glass paste to a metal, then firing or heating the piece in an oven. The resulting glass-like material can then be further decorated by painting over it. Other decorating methods use different colored enamels to make a design, using either the Cloisonné or Champlevé technique. These two techniques are the oldest enameling methods and were used in ancient Egypt and Greece to make gorgeous pieces of jewelry. The Romans, Greeks and Byzantines also used them to make ornamental pieces for use by the nobility.  


            Russian trinket box, circa late 1800s, enamel on silver, colorful cloisonné floral design, marked PIK, St. Petersburg assay marks, and 84, dimensions 2”x2”x1/2”, retail price $400-500.


            In more modern times other techniques, such as miniature painting and plique-a-jour enameling, were developed to create the beautiful seventeenth century boxes and jewelry using precious metals and stones. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Carl Faberge, the famous Russian jeweler of French decent, and other jewelers used engine turning to create some of the finest examples of enameled boxes.


            History of enameling in Europe 

            In the late 1500s and early 1600s French jewelers began experimenting with enameling and were creating miniature paintings on white enamels fused on gold or silver. Some of the earliest examples came from the Limoges area. Many French jewelers such as Boucher, Jean Moynat, Claude Lorraine and Watteau, were also enamellers. By the early eighteenth century enameled boxes with jewels and hand painted miniatures were among the most treasured objects of virtu in the French court.  The jewelers of Paris were making small enameled and jeweled boxes for the aristocracy in the court of Louis XIV. These included patch boxes, toothpick boxes, vinaigrettes, pillboxes, match safes, and etuis. Most common of these were snuffboxes, which reflected the economic as well as the political status of its owner.



            English oblong snuffbox, circa late 1700s/early 1800s, enamel on copper, hinged lid hand painted with equestrian racing scene, pale green base, 2 ¼”x1 1/8”x1 1/8”. Unmarked, auction hammer price $400


            To collectors of enameled boxes, the French enameled gold box decorated with a miniature painting is the most desirable, the so-called “Holy Grail”. Collectors and connoisseur alike consider the French enameled box as the standard. This is evidenced by the fact that Faberge compared his enameled boxes to the quality of earlier French boxes.

            English enameling also has its roots in France. In 1637 Jean Petitot, a French enameller, went to England and introduced the art form. In the mid 1700s the area of south Staffordshire became the center of painted enamel box making. The Battersea factory, which existed from 1753 to 1756, was the first to develop several of the new techniques  which allowed mass production of these beauties. Although the word Battersea has become synonymous with this type of box, given its short-lived history, it is likely that most of the enameled boxes currently referred to as Battersea boxes are not. However, these were all generally made in Staffordshire or in Birmingham. Thus the patch box discussed earlier was probably made in south Staffordshire but not in the Battersea manufactory.

            Staffordshire boxes were made as cheap imitations to the French enameled boxes. The initial production in the mid to late 1700s was of significantly higher quality than later enamels. Hammering metal sheets to form boxes was the method originally used to make blank metal boxes. However, in the late 1700s casting or machine stamping was invented and mass production became the norm. Casting also made it possible to develop the figural box, which was then enameled. Such boxes are very desirable and highly thought after by collector. Box shapes included fruits, animals, and human heads, among others.

            In the early 1800s, the Staffordshire box makers made their second contribution to mass production of boxes. This was to decorate the box lid by transferring a drawing to the enameled surface. In this method, the blanks were dipped in a paste of enamel and the box underwent the first firing. Once the enameled box emerged from the firing, a design was applied or transferred to the blank using a print to lay the outline on the enamel. This outline was then hand colored and the box underwent a second firing. This type of box is still in production.  An example is the Halcyon Days Enamels, produced by Bilston & Battersea Enamels.  These modern boxes are very desirable and highly collectible. They are usually commemorative in nature, marked with the manufacturer’s name, and are dated. On the other hand, old English enamel boxes were usually unmarked and unsigned, making attribution a difficult task.

            Russian enamellers used three different methods of enameling, cloisonné, nielo and guilloche.  The cloisonné method was used as early as the tenth century. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century the nielo method was introduced. Finally, in the late 1800s and early 1900s Carl Faberge used the engine-turned or guilloche technique to create beautiful enameled boxes. Both nielo and engine turning were used by the Russians to decorate mostly cigarette boxes and cases.




            Continental rectangular cigarette box Lavender Guilloche, circa late 1800s, Enamel over engine turned concentric circles. Hinged and latched lid. Gold wash inside, dimensions 3½”x2”x7/16”, Makers Mark S.T. inside, retail price $450-600.


            Swiss jewelers are also known for making beautiful boxes with miniatures on enameled gold. These boxes typically date from the early 1800s and rival the French boxes of the same vintage in their quality and beauty. However, the enameled gold music box with singing birds that pop out of the lid are, in my opinion, what defines Swiss enameled box. These are pieces of art and have a mechanism that rivals that which can be found in the best Swiss watch.

            Today, enameling is still used extensively by many European and Russian artisans for making beautiful jewelry, boxes and modern objects of virtu.


            Differentiating box origins  

            French gold and silver enameled boxes usually have a maker’s mark as well as an assay mark. Assay marks were impressed on an inconspicuous part of the box, usually on the inside lip, by a government official to indicate that the box is indeed of the precious metal at the proper assay. These marks also allow the collector to identify the jeweler, and date of the box by researching the marks using the appropriate references.

            French enameled boxes made in the era of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI  were normally decorated with rococo decorations, and reflected the decadence of the French aristocracy, which ended with the French revolution. The rococo style miniatures usually depicted men and women courting and in compromising positions within a pastoral scene, sometimes with sheep in the background.

            In contrast, English enamel boxes from the same era were much more reserved. These boxes were usually decorated with miniatures of animals, birds, castles, hunting, equestrian, or maritime scenes. They would have a simple floral or foliate design and plain writing, as opposed to the French boxes, which had none. The message, written on the lid, reflected the fact that they were gifts.  Typical  messages were “A trifle for a friend,”  “This and the giver are thine forever” or “Esteem the giver”. Staffordshire and Birmingham boxes from the eighteenth century are very difficult to attribute since they were normally unmarked.

            Russians enameled boxes are often decorated using the cloisonné technique to render  a colorful floral design. These boxes have a maker’s mark in the Cyrillic alphabet as well as an assay mark. Nielo enameling was normally used for cigarette cases, and were decorated with scenes of buildings or the ubiquitous troika (three horse drawn carriage). More modern Russian boxes are engine turned and are again marked with a maker’s mark in the Cyrillic alphabet.

            Known plique-a-jour boxes from the eighteenth century normally originated in Austria. On the other hand, bright silver champlevé boxes with cobalt blue enameling, central neo-classical miniature, and marked 800 silver are made in Italy.  While similarly decorated boxes marked Sterling Silver are made in Austria. These boxes normally have the country of origin stamped inside.


            Prices of enameled boxes 

            Eighteenth century French boxes are very difficult to come by and normally examples that come up at auction fetch very high prices. In a recent auction a French enamel-on-gold oval snuffbox measuring 3 ½” by ~2” and less than 1” deep, decorated with a miniature portrait of a lady realized $13,500, excluding the buyer’s premium.



            French Vinaigrette, circa late 1700s, enamel on silver, decorated with rococo scenes on front and back of couple in compromising position, foliate decorated grill, dimensions 1” diameter ½” deep, retail price $800-1000.


            On the other hand, French enamels on silver or brass are more reasonable in price. A late 1700s enamel-on-silver vinaigrette, with a miniature of a courting scene retails for $800- $1000, while an enamel-on-silver patch box, with a rococo scene from the same era retails for $350-$500. The quality of the artwork, the size of the miniature, and of course condition has a large impact on the price. 

            Contemporary English enameled boxes retail for about $100- $200, while old Battersea-type boxes range in price from $250 to $1,600 depending on size, condition and illustration. Maritime, equestrian, and ballooning scenes usually command a premium and sell in the range of $400 to $600.  Portraits of known historical figures always command a very large premium no matter who the maker is or where it was made.

            Russian enamel boxes made by well-known names such as Faberge’s work master Henrik Wigstrom command a premium. Faberge is probably one of the most famous makers of engine turned enameled boxes. His cigarette boxes made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are prized collectibles worldwide. A silver engine-turned enameled cigarette case bearing the Faberge name would normally sell for over $10,000 in a well-advertised auction. Having the name of one of his work masters on it would increase the price.

            Austrian plique-a-jour boxes made of silver where only the hinged lid is enameled retail for somewhere between $1,200- $1,600. Plique-a-jour is not the best technique for boxes, since a box is an enclosed shape, which does not allow light to shine freely through it. This technique lends itself very well to earrings and large bowls. Jewelry using the plique-a-jour technique was made by Lalique.

            An Italian silver compact, marked 800, with champlevé cobalt blue enameling and a neo-classical miniature on the lid, gold gilt on the interior and a mirror realizes $450 to $800 in auctions, depending on size and condition.



            Austria Lady’s rectangular compact, circa late 1800s/early 1900s, enamel on sterling silver, hinged lid with Champlevé decoration in cobalt blue, central miniature in neoclassic/rococo style of a courting scene. Sides and bottom have cobalt blue enameling. Dimensions 3¼” x 2”x 7/16”. Hallmarked and has maker’s mark inside, retail price $800-1000


            These beautiful treasures are becoming difficult to come by and command a premium when they do appear in auctions, especially if the enamel is intact. Cracks or breaks in the enamel result in a considerably lower price. Condition of all enamel boxes is a major factor in pricing. Remember these boxes were used extensively by their owners and were prone to damage. Finding a 300-year-old enamel box, which has not been damaged or repaired is worth a premium price. Repairs are also a detriment to the value of enamels of the object. When acquiring an enameled box beware of changes in color or shades of color within a given area; this could be an indication of repair.

            Collecting enameled objects in general and enameled boxes in particular is a very popular hobby and in my opinion will continue to be. The fact that these boxes are very pleasing aesthetically makes them highly desirable by collectors and since they are fragile they are becoming rarer due to loss, thus will always hold their value over time. Moreover, reasonably priced contemporary enameled boxes and inexpensive reproductions of antique ones make it easy for novices to enter the hobby thus expanding the interest.


            • Cloisonné: Enameling technique in which metal strips are soldered to a metal base creating small compartments (Cloisons). The cloisons were made into floral or other designs and then filled with enamels of different colors and fired. The metal strips kept the different colors from mixing.
              • Champlevé (French meaning raised field): Enameling technique in which the metal is carved with a design and then the crevasses in the metal surface are filled with enamel and fired. The holes in the surface prevented the various colors from mixing.
              • Engine Turned (Guilloche): In this technique a geometric design with repeating pattern is mechanically engraved on the surface of the metal then transparent enamel is applied, which shows the pattern under it and creates the desired effect.
              •  Etui: Small box fitted with compartments to hold sewing implements or beauty needs for ladies. It is also referred to as necessaire (necessary).
              • Nielo: A Russian method of enameling in which the surface of silver is engraved with a design, filled with a black glassy powder (gun powder) and then fired and smoothed. Objects of Virtu: Handmade small objects made of precious metals/materials.
              • Plique-a-jour: In this enameling technique cloisones are made without a metal base. The various cloisones are filled with different colored enamels and fired. The translucent enamels without backing gave the effect of stained glass.
              • Patch Box: Small box equipped with a mirror (Earliest Lady’s compact) to hold patches.

              Suggested Reading:

              1. Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes- From the 18th to the 20th Century, Macdonald & Co. Publishers, Ltd. London, UK 1978  
              2. Henry and Sidney Berry-Hill, Antique Gold Boxes, Their Lore and Their Lure, Abelard Press, NY 1953
              3. Clare le Corbeiller, European and American Snuff Boxes “1720-1830, The Viking Press, NY 1966.
              4. C. Bernard Hughes, English Snuff-Boxes, Mac Gibbon & Kee, London, UK 1971 
              5. John Bedford, All Kinds of Small Boxes, Walker and Company, NY 1964  
              6. Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970  
              7. Brian Cole, Collecting for Tomorrow “Boxes”, BPC Publishers, Ltd. UK 1976

              July 13, 2014

              Off to an Antique Buying Vacation Next Week, with our Amish Friends

              Gamal and I will be heading off to Amish country for a week of fun, relaxation and buying.  We will try to share experiences and photos starting next week.


              March 12, 2014

              "Antique Marks" Website

              Have you heard of the "Antique Marks" website?  This is a great site for pottery marks, antique terms, glossary and history.  Also talks about caring for rugs, carpets silver and glass.  http://www.antique-marks.com.