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