Somewhere under the clutter of papers on my desk in the newsroom is a glass paperweight about to be laid to waste by the “Frankenstein of Cary.”
“There’s a night-and-day difference between paperweights. There are paperweights like the one on your desk that are worth maybe 35 cents, and then there are the ones at the Art Institute of Chicago,” says this Frankenstein, who earns his title as a heavyweight in the paperweight world. “I got the nickname because the dealers created a monster when I outbid them at auctions.”
He may intimidate paperweight peers, but I’m withholding his real name not out of personal fear but because Frankenstein is an otherwise polite 71-year-old retired chemical industry executive who doesn’t want strangers to know he owns a collection of valuable antique paperweights, including some worth more than my car.
He’s about to get a chance to add museum-worthy gems to his collection, thanks to next month’s auction of paperweights that reside at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“This has never happened before. Never in the history of paperweights has there ever been an opportunity to purchase museum-quality artwork,” says Ben Clark, owner of L.H. Selman, the extensive paperweight gallery in Chicago, which is hosting the auction. “These are essentially near-duplicates of what’s on display (in the Art Institute’s Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights). Some of these will go for five figures.”
The auction of 400 paperweights, bundled in lots of two to four with bidding beginning at $1,000, begins at noon Sept. 17 with bidders competing in a live auction at 900 S. Clinton St. in Chicago, and worldwide online, by phone and through absentee bids.
The majority of the auction features 19th-century works, but it also includes some 20th-century pieces and some made by contemporary artists.
To register or get more information, phone (800) 538-0766 or visit the L.H. Selman website at theglassgallery.com.
“This auction is an absolutely great opportunity for a new collector to find an antique weight,” Frankenstein says. “This is the chance of a lifetime for someone who is interested in the finest, rarest things.”
The Cary collector got his start in the hobby when he was in his 20s.
“I wanted things that everybody didn’t know about. The first paperweight I ever bought was at a farm sale in Kansas,” he says, remembering how he took his bidding cues from paperweight dealers. “They came to this farm in the middle of Kansas. I just outbid the dealers.”
Hooked, he learned more through research and books, such as “The Dictionary of Glass Paperweights,” by Paul H. Dunlop. Frankenstein still has his original paperweight.
“The first one I bought was a Clichy flower,” he says of the colorful flower encased in glass and made between 1846 and 1850. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out to be a very rare and hard-to-find Clichy Fantasy Flower.”
Another of his favorites is a “scrambled” piece by Italian artist Pietro Bigaglia. The paperweight features lots of colorful and intricate items, including a crown, since it was made for the Queen of Greece to commemorate her visit to Venice on Sept. 30, 1845.
“What a nice souvenir,” Frankenstein says.
But sentiment doesn’t play a role in his collections, he insists, telling of how he recently passed up a chance to buy a box full of interesting paperweights because none was worth more than a few dollars.
“There are some paperweights that I bought for a couple hundred that are worth more than $10,000 now. I don’t buy anything without value,” he proclaims, pausing a moment before offering an admission. “But you can get hooked on the beauty of them. Each one is unique.”
With maybe 15,000 19th-century paperweights still around, and a couple thousand collectors, the market, as it did originally, caters to an aristocratic crowd not concerned with practicality.
“I think people who collect them collect them because of their beauty and their rarity,” Frankenstein says. “What would you use a paperweight for today? I can’t think of one thing.”