Collectible items feature a bit of humor

Collectors know you can find jokes and riddles in collectibles of all ages. There are puzzle mugs made with holes in the sides so if you try to drink, the ale inside will dribble down the front of your shirt. There are comic figurines of drunks a...

Try drinking from this pierced puzzle jug without getting wet. (Use the handle as a straw.) This 19th-century stoneware jug sold for $356 at a Skinner auction in Boston. Cowles Syndicate

Collectors know you can find jokes and riddles in collectibles of all ages. There are puzzle mugs made with holes in the sides so if you try to drink, the ale inside will dribble down the front of your shirt. There are comic figurines of drunks and lithographed pictures with forgotten meanings that poke fun at political figures.

Even the names for antiques can be jokes; the silhouette was named for Etienne de Silhouette, the stingy finance minister of France in the 1700s. Silhouettes cost less than portraits, so the cheap picture was given his name. Potteries in Torquay, England, in Pennsylvania Dutch country and in many other places made dishes with thoughtful or comic sayings as part of the design. A small ashtray might say "Don't burn the tablecloth," and a pottery dish proclaims "A woman's face may be a chemist's fortune." Collectors like all types of pottery jokes and often will pay extra if the joke has a personal meaning of some kind.

Q: I need some advice. I paid $140 at an estate sale for a figure that was identified as a "jade sculpture." When I took it to a gallery for an appraisal, I was told it was soapstone, not jade, and that it was worth $40. I contacted the estate sale company, and the owner more or less said "tough luck." Is it really? Or is the estate sale company responsible?

A: Look at it this way. If you had paid $40 for a figure marked "soapstone," then found out it was jade, would you give $100 back to the estate sale company? Lawsuits have been filed in both types of situations, but your legal costs would amount to more than $100. An established auction house would have had an expert look at your figure before it was offered for sale, but an estate sale company might claim that the family whose sale it handled made the error. A legitimate auction house probably would return your money. But with an estate or house sale, you face a case of "buyer beware" (in other words, "tough luck"). The only thing that might have helped was asking for a receipt that included a written guarantee. Then the estate sale company might have been willing to return your money. You have learned a difficult lesson, but take some heart. Soapstone figures are popular with collectors - someone might pay more than $40 for your sculpture if you decide to sell it.

Q: I have a small silver match holder. Part of it is covered with a pale green collection of little dots that look almost like small tiles. Someone told me it is something called "chagreen," but I never understood what that is.


A: Shagreen (not chagreen) is a grainy, untanned leather that was originally made from the hide of a Turkish wild ass called a shagri. The hide was soaked in lime water and then dyed green, red, black or blue. Shagreen was also made from camel, horse or goat skin. Small seeds were pressed into the leather to give an artificial graining. Shark skin was used in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was dried and dyed. The surface does look like small polished pebbles or textured enamel. It was popular with Art Deco designers and was used for small boxes, cigarette boxes and cases, wastebaskets, eyeglass cases and even trunks.

Q: I just found a box of old lead soldiers that belonged to my great-grandfather. A few are marked. Are they collected today?

A: Yes. In the 1700s, toy soldiers about 2 inches high were bought for the children of the rich and sometimes for their fathers. The earliest toy soldiers were flat, but by the 1790s French manufacturers were selling French Revolutionary toy soldiers that were three-dimensional. There were many different makers, and soldiers from many parts of the world were made. Staging old battles with the toys was a popular pastime. Collectors today pay premium prices for soldiers made by William Britain. In 1893 he introduced a line of toy soldiers that was less expensive than existing toys because they were hollow-cast rather than solid. Look for pieces marked Britains, BMC or Johillco, the best-known English makers.

Q: I have a cup, 2½ inches wide by 2½ inches high. It's cream-colored with a black-and-white picture of General Lafayette and George Washington on it. Each man's head is shown in an oval and identified by name. Above the ovals is an eagle with outstretched wings. What can you tell me about it?

A: You have a child's mug made by Enoch Wood & Sons, a Staffordshire, England, pottery firm. These transferware mugs were popular from about 1819 to 1825. The firm made many plates, mugs and pitchers decorated with historical scenes. The Lafayette-Washington design with an eagle was made on a mug like yours and eight different sizes of plates. Your cup is worth about $850.

For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel's Web site,

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.

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