Kovels Antiques: One person's kitsch another's idea of stylish

"Kitsch" is a term that refers to something that's overly sentimental or vulgar or in just plain poor taste. Paintings on velvet of Elvis Presley, plastic pink flamingos and hula girl statues were all once considered kitsch - and laughable.

Hula girl lamp
This 26-inch-high table lamp with a hula girl base is a kitsch joke. When the girl "dances," her fringed skirt shakes. The 1940s lamp, very collectible now, auctioned for $500 at a fall Conestoga auction in Manheim, Pa. Cowles Syndicate

"Kitsch" is a term that refers to something that's overly sentimental or vulgar or in just plain poor taste. Paintings on velvet of Elvis Presley, plastic pink flamingos and hula girl statues were all once considered kitsch - and laughable.

But tastes change, and today some of these things are now acceptable collectibles, although you would not expect to see them in an art museum. It is the humor in an example of kitsch that makes it interesting and gives it a place among collectibles. The hula girl is a tourist symbol of Hawaii, and the related dolls, lamps, paintings, grass skirts and leis are collected. Pink flamingo garden figures, a symbol of Florida to most Americans, are sold in all parts of the country.

Kitsch is the opposite of conservative taste, and sometimes it takes many years before it is not laughed at. Those who bought funny 1880 advertising posters for quack medicines or figurines of exotic dancing girls in the 19th-century art-nouveau style are now seeing some of their "outlandish" choices displayed as art. Many art-nouveau bronze dancers bring high prices today. So if you dare, collect what appeals to you even if it is kitsch. Tastes change, and prices change, too.

Q: I received a pair of carved ivory earrings as a gift during World War II. They're marked "Kitagawa Ivory Work Shop." What do you think they're worth?

A: The Kitagawa family of Tokyo has operated an ivory importing business since the late 19th century. You say you received the earrings "during World War II." Either the earrings were made before the war and were given to you later or you were given the earrings after the war ended. Japan and the United States were enemies during World War II, and trade between the two countries was impossible. The earrings could be valuable, but their price depends on not just their age and maker, but also their style and quality.


Q: Can you tell me when printed paper labels and stickers were first used to label products like ceramics and furniture? I have seen some decorative labels on pieces that I think date from the early 1900s, but I didn't think paper labels were used back then.

A: Lithographed paper labels have been used on products since at least the 1880s. The practice started in Europe and was soon picked up by U.S. lithographers. These early labels were attached to products with a gum adhesive. The first self-adhesive labels were introduced by R. Stanton Avery in the 1930s. Avery's company became today's Avery Dennison Corp., which still makes adhesives.

Q: Please tell me the difference between the Miss America depression glass sherbet plate and the coaster. I notice the coaster is higher priced, but pictures I have don't show me the difference in the two pieces.

A: The Miss America coaster and sherbet plate are the same size, 5¾ inches in diameter, but the coaster has six raised ridges to support a drinking glass. Miss America pattern was made by Hocking Glass Co. of Lancaster, Ohio, from 1935 to 1938. The coaster was made in crystal (clear glass) and pink. The sherbet plate was made in crystal ($3), pink ($9), green ($8) and Royal Ruby. The coasters are worth more than sherbet plates of the same color, but the Royal Ruby sherbet plate ($60) is worth the most. Reproductions have been made of some Miss America pieces.

Q: I have a model of the Washington Monument with a label that says it is made out of macerated money. It's 6 1/4 inches tall and has a partial paper label attached to the base.

A: Models of patriotic subjects and other items were made of macerated currency. Worn or damaged bills were shredded (macerated) and made into pulp at the U.S. Treasury and then used to make souvenirs. If the item is labeled, it usually tells how much money was used to make the piece. A 5-1/2-inch model of the Washington Monument with a label saying "Made of U.S. National Greenbacks redeemed and macerated at the U.S. Treasury, estimated $5,000" sold at auction for more than $1,200 a few years ago.


When you're framing paper documents and prints, don't use glue, transparent tape or rubber cement. No scissors - don't trim anything. No pencils or pens, and don't try to rewrite an autograph. No staples or clips. No extremes of temperature or humidity. No direct sunlight - it fades the ink.


For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel's website, .

Kovel answers as many questions as possible through the column. By sending a letter with a question, you give full permission for use in the column or any Kovel forum. We cannot guarantee the return of any photograph, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. The volume of mail makes personal answers or appraisals impossible. Write to Kovel, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

What To Read Next
Get Local