Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Art or Craft

Seaneen, a collector for many years of aluminum items, was fortunate in securing a ticket to the Antique Roadshow when it appeared in Minneapolis. In addition to a few other items, she decided to take a group of aluminum pieces. How many of us have dreamed of having such an opportunity!

There were four jewelry appraisers and none of them knew anything about aluminum jewelry. The appraiser gave an estimate of #1,200 to $1,500, which Seaneen thought was rather high. The appraiser also appeared very impressed with the pieces. Nice aluminum does seem to have that effect on people! I have often wondered if one of those bank lamps or patio tables ever appeared for their appraisal, if they would have a clue concerning their value or history.

Nome of the items were marked although in other collections, there have been tentative identifications according to patterns. In my opinion, many belts and the pins and pendant groups were made by Everlast.  Handbags with a chrysanthemum pattern were sold in the recent auction and indicated that this was the Continental Chrysanthemum  pattern. It was indeed a chrysanthemum but not the one  we normally associate with the Continental Company. Seaneen stated that she had once seen a handbag like hers with a NYC as part of its mark. She also notes that the bag and the belt are matching pieces. That would be an attention getting  wear and carry ensemble!

In the fifties I purchased a gold mesh belt and a belt of aluminum sections embossed with a rose motif, paying $5 each for the belts. My clothing allowance was shot for a month and I knew I should have stayed out of that ritzy department store but I wore the belts for years. I remember a time or two when the aluminum one fell to the floor with a clatter!! I still have the belt as a memento of my first piece of aluminum and of those days so long ago when a 22" waist was more important than breathing.

Before the publication of my first book on hammered aluminum, many antique and collectible dealers confessed they sent all aluminum items straight to the recyclers. Even later, after several shows, numerous articles, and a tremendous rise in prices, there was a surprising lack of interest on the part of sellers, in seeking knowledge. We who appreciate the skill that has produced the decorative aluminum that we love, find it hard to understand this attitude among those who are in a position to have first access to the best and most interesting items.
The fact that aluminum is not a precious metal is not acceptable, for there are collectible pottery items, made of the most common of materials.....clay. Then there are carvings of wood, another material that cannot be classified as precious.

 The best reason may lie in the large number of aluminum items made by homemaking clubs, 4Hers and scout groups in the 1950s. Although many of these items were cherished for years, few could match the items made by more skilled craftsmen in facilities better suited for their production. Combined with the  declining quality of aluminum used in many mass produced and imported items that hit the market in the 50s and 60's, aluminum began to get a reputation for trashiness. Still, after ten aluminum shows, several books and hundreds of collectors on the prowl, one would assume that "hammered aluminum" is important.

A conversation yesterday with a person with a long-time museum connection has tweaked my curiosity about this:

When does a craft become an art?.
What exactly determines art, anyway?
What is the category of Arthur Armour's Pioneer  pattern and others like it?
What about some of the old landscapes by the Forge or even the elephants marching across a tray?
Then there are the multitudes of cast figures; are them merely eye pleasing little do-dads, or are they artistic little objects?

I rather doubt there is a definitive answer to my queries. Judging by the extremes I have seen in museums, there's a wide difference in opinions. Perhaps our aluminum items are not wildly extreme enough to be eye catching.

Your opinions, please. The box below is waiting for you!



Saturday, July 16, 2011

What is "Hammered Aluminum?"

What is "hammered aluminum?"
         The short version would be that hammered aluminum is a group of decorative items made by a process of hammering a design into s a sheet of metal of no special rarity or high value, and then shaping this sheet over a wooden mold into the desired shape.

     The long version includes much more.

       The metalworking skills that produced our prized aluminum items had their roots in those of antiquity. Centuries ago highly skilled workers made beautiful items from the metals available at that time; gold band bronze. These items can be seen around the world in wonderful displays of the metalworking art.
Tools displayed at show
Wooden mold and other tools in show display
       In the beginning of the Wendell August Forge's long history of production, it was immigrant workers who passed on these skills which were adapted to use on a metal previously thought unsuitable for this type of work. We, who have been drawn to the soft glow of aluminum, have benefited from their skill in creating detailed motifs and shaping the lamps and vases that have a part of our collections.
      Besides the skills that have gone into our aluminum, think back to the period it was first produced. Generally spoken of as being in 1930, we know this was a time of extreme stress for both businesses and people needing jobs. These were the days of the Great Depression and although not given away as a gift like the Depression Glass often was, aluminum gift ware occupied the same time slot. In addition, unlike Depression Glass, early aluminum gift wares were completely hand crafted.
A hot fire is a necessity.
      There are so many steps in creating each piece of hand made hammered aluminum. First, there must be an artist to create the pattern or motif. Then the pattern is is transferred,,  into a large piece of steel by carefully cutting each tiny detail of the pattern into the steel. The die is carefully examined for flaws before being placed on a work table with a piece of aluminum laid on the engraved die. At this point, the sheet of aluminum is carefully hammered, creating a raised design from the incised design on the die. This technique is called  repousse.
      At this point the piece has become slightly uneven so it is laid on a leather covered table and flattened with a nylon hammer and then edged with a hammer and anvil. It is now ready for the coloring which takes place over a coal fire. The fire remains at the proper temperature only a short time, but cooling racks are soon filled with ugly sooty objects resembling nothing a person would want in their house.
      The next step involves a carefully cleaning of each piece, leaving only enough of the darkening to enhance the pattern. The Forge switched to chemical darkening in recent years and may or may not still be using that process.
      Yet another step awaits the piece of aluminum. This is the molding which may be done with a press or upon a wooden mold. The piece is now is awaiting its final finishing touch...a polishing and waxing that produced the piece that may now be sitting on your shelf.
      It deserves the admiration we collectors give and as either a uniquely crafted item or as mementos from  50-80 years ago, it is a collectible to use and enjoy.

The July 15 Auction

       Years ago I took part as a phone bidder in an auction. It was exciting and produced not near as costly a phone bill as I had expected. I was able to successfully bid on a table lamp and a table, both made by Wendell August. I found out later that for the lamp, I was bidding against Bill Knetch of the Forge. Although I have forgotten what I paid and seem to have conveniently failed to enter the prices on my inventory list, these pieces were nothing like the bargains I watched flash by in yesterday's auction of the Dan Overmeyer collection.
      I watched the bidding progress online and found it almost too fast to keep pace with. As the catalog portrayed, most lots were large...much larger than many of us would have preferred. I have had no report from other online watchers but can tell you that two prospective bidders had either registering glitches or computer problems that prevented any personal participation.
      In reviewing the entire auction from an online viewpoint, I can see that I had not made proper preparation to be a participant. After all, I do have a few pieces of aluminum cluttering up the closets and shelves and have little room for more, so I had not thoroughly investigated this method of auctioning and the options offered in the catalog's information section. Other than my personal problems, I judged the auction to be a well planned, efficiently carried out operation.
      Next, I am wondering about other collectors' reaction to the actual presentation of the collection. In my opinion, the usual lack of knowledge about the features that make an item valuable, hindered their best presentation. The lots were usually large, making the image of each item rather small and easily overlooked in previewing the catalog, and I feel certain that a few rather unique or old motifs slipped by unnoticed. In fact, compared to the lots of glass, which featured only one or two items in each lot, aluminum lots of six, twelve, or even more, appeared as an almost desperate attempt to bring order to a stack of aluminum that must have appeared mind boggling. Under the circumstances,  I can emphasize with that feeling.