Discover Vintage America - APRIL 2018
Antique gold is not all that glitters
In February, my oral surgeon returned to me a gold-capped tooth (already root-canal treated and fractured under the cap so that it couldn't be saved) with a mailer envelope for a company that buys scrap dental gold. Who would have thought? That incident got me to thinking about the changing historical standards for what constitutes a material valuable enough not just to scrap (even in minute amounts!) but for generations of owners to keep the objects made of these materials until they have come down to us as today's antiques.
Several years ago, friends of mine who own a high-end antique shop gave me this exquisite, large cast iron figure of a mountain lion that now graces a side table in my living room. It is unmarked but probably Japanese judging from the copper-colored highlights in the iron typical of iron sculptures made in that country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be more monetarily valuable if cast in bronze, but for me, the value is in the aesthetics! (Yes, those are thinly, separately articulated front fangs.)
Precious gems and metals have always been considered valuable in no small part because they've been mined at great time and expense, and also because of the effort and workmanship required to render them useful in jewelry, tea sets, and decorative accents on other objects. Prices for these materials do tend to fluctuate, of course, according to demand and availability. Case in point is the stellar rise in gold prices in recent years, resulting in what seems a ridiculous proposition that a 25-year-old gold tooth crown not much thicker than gold leaf might actually be worth mailing in to a salvager.
Copper was plentiful when I was a kid. My dad was a scrap metal "junker" as a side gig to support a family consisting of his wife and five kids. He was always glad to get copper, which was more lucrative pound-for-pound than iron and steel. Back in those days, copper was used in everything from cookware to cable and wiring to pipes, so copper scrap was relatively easy for my dad to get from businesses looking for someone to haul away their "junk." These days, the scrap market for copper is so hot that this material is much more sparingly used in manufacturing, having become a lure for thieves inclined to rip out copper piping, for instance, even when it's still in use.
There was a time when fine, decorative porcelain was considered extremely valuable, back in the 17th and 18th centuries when cargo ships full of it were being exported from Asia to meet an insatiable Western demand. It was considered a precious material through the 18th and 19th centuries when, in Europe, only Meissen knew how to make it. Today, porcelain is still considered a fine material but perhaps not especially valuable apart from the fame of the maker and/or aesthetic appeal of the objects in which it is made.
Textiles don't have to include gold thread to be valuable. Genuine silk is still considered a luxury item today because actual silkworms spin its natural, non-synthetic form. It takes about 2,250 silkworm cocoons feeding on 200 pounds of mulberry leaves to produce a pound of natural silk – which gives us some idea of why folks settle for the synthetic varieties of it. Happy the antique dealer with an ancient Chinese silk robe in fine condition to sell!
None of us alive can remember the times when foodstuffs like tea, sugar, and salt were so valuable that only the wealthy could afford them – and kept them under lock and key in covered boxes called "caddies."
Today, all but the poorest of families can afford a box of teabags; sugar and salt are so plentiful that they are sold not only as themselves but also as key ingredients in most of the processed foods found in the grocery store.
Certain spices, too, have retained their value cache' through the centuries; saffron, made from just the stamen of the crocus flowers that produce it, remains the world's most expensive spice. Today, the sugar and spice opportunity for antique dealers is in caddies, spice mills, and related items; antique examples, finely made and in excellent condition, can command high prices today.