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Knowledge, location, luck help uncover treasures

Geography, knowledge and luck are a big part of finding treasure in an unexpected place and at a low price. A number of years ago, a collector found a stack of five enameled ashtrays at an estate sale. The trays were artwork made by a friend, but...

Mildred Watkins, a well-known Cleveland enamelist, made this sterling silver box set with the enameled picture of a ship. It sold at a 2015 Skinner auction in Boston for the unexpectedly high price of $15,990. Photo courtesy of Cowles Syndicate.

Geography, knowledge and luck are a big part of finding treasure in an unexpected place and at a low price.

A number of years ago, a collector found a stack of five enameled ashtrays at an estate sale. The trays were artwork made by a friend, but they were out of style and of no interest to the heirs. The collector asked the price and willingly paid the $5 for all of them.

It was a number of years later that the name of the artist, Mildred Watkins (1883-1968), became nationally known. A small round silver box with an enamel picturing a ship in the center sold at a January 2015 Skinner auction in Boston. It brought $15,990, about three times the high estimate.

Watkins' name was well-known in Cleveland where she worked as a silversmith, jeweler and enamelist. She studied at the Cleveland School of Art from 1897 to 1901. She moved to Boston to study enameling, then returned to Cleveland and taught at the Cleveland School of Art from 1919 to 1953.

She made enameled jewelry, boxes and ashtrays for local shops and shows. Today, the best of the five estate sale ashtrays is worth about $2,000 or more. The others should sell for $250 to $500.


The collector found a bargain because she was informed. But living in the same city as the artist and being lucky enough to get to the sale early led to finding a treasure.

Q: I have quite an extensive collection of American Brilliant Period cut glass that I started collecting when I was about 16 years old. I'm now 74. I know it has lost a considerable sum since the beginning of this century. Do you think the value of my collection will ever return?

A: The American "Brilliant Period" of cut glass was from 1876 until about 1910. The glass was "brilliant" because it was deeply cut and highly polished. Colored cut glass was made from the early 1880s until about 1900. The most popular type was "colored cut to clear" glass. American Brilliant cut glass has gone down in value partly because copies now can be made today in Europe for much less money. The older, heavy-cut glass is out of style, perhaps because it requires hand washing. I wish I could see into the future, but so many uncontrollable factors influence price. An article showing a collection that belonged to a movie star or a sudden interest in elaborately decorated clear glass can raise prices. Like any antique, the prices may go up or down and it usually takes about 25 years for the price of a collection to recover from a loss.

Q: I have a small burl walnut cabinet with two doors. It has an inside drawer that is branded "Hekman." The cabinet has metal loop door pulls. It's 28 inches high and the top is 38 inches wide by 18 inches deep. What can you tell me about it?

A: Edsko Hekman was a baker who emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, Mich., hoping to fulfill his dream of becoming a furniture maker. Toward the end of the 19th century, Grand Rapids companies had become leading producers of machine-made furniture and the city became known as "The Furniture City." Hekman started out as a baker in Grand Rapids, selling cookies door to door, and started the Hekman Biscuit Co., which later became the Keebler Co. It was Hekman's three sons who inherited his love of furniture craftsmanship and started the Hekman Furniture Co. in 1922. The company made affordable desks, cabinets, consoles and all sorts of occasional tables and stands. In 1983, Hekman was bought by the Howard Miller Clock Co. of Zeeland, Mich., and in 1993, Hekman bought a company noted for its upholstered furniture. The company is still in business. Your cabinet was made by Hekman about 1950 and is worth $200 to $300.

Q: I have a glass bank that is 4¾ inches high by 4½ inches wide. It has raised letters that read "Watch your savings grow with Esso" and an oval with the Esso logo. Is it worth anything?

A: Clear glass block banks were popular advertising or promotional giveaways and souvenirs. They were printed, etched or embossed with all kinds of designs or company logos. Your glass block bank was available at service stations that sold Esso gasoline. The embossed logo and slogan on your bank was used by Esso starting in 1934. The bank probably had a paper label band around it when it was new. Some of the labels encouraged saving to buy U.S. Defense Bonds; later labels encouraged saving for Christmas, vacation, new car and clothing. Your bank is from the early 1940s and is worth $40 to $75, depending on condition and clarity of the glass (some have yellowed). A bank with its label will bring a higher price. A glass block bank was also a popular souvenir at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It has the same Esso logo on one side and the Trylon and Perisphere and "New York World's Fair 1939" on the other. It can sell for up to $100.

A reader wrote us with added information about old mahjong sets that we mentioned in this column a while ago. We explained that new sets have more tiles so old ones are not often used by those who play mahjong. Our reader said there are old tiles for sale at the National Mah Jongg League, (212) 246-3052, or www.nationalmahjonggleague.org or 250 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10107. If you send a joker, flower or symbol tile they will try to get a match to your set. They also have decals that can be used on your tiles.


Tip: It is best to hand wash silverware and not put it in a dishwasher. The force of the water may make the silver bump, the detergent may have some harmful ingredients, and the handles on vintage knives may come unglued.

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

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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