Why Collect Paperweights?


"Why do men and women collect? As well ask why they fall in love; the reasons are as irrational, the motives as mixed, the original impulse as often discolored or betrayed. The collector's instinct, if animals and children are any guide, has two roots; the desire to pick up anything bright and shining and the desire to complete a series... The finest collectors look at their possessions with the feelings of an artist and relive, to some extent, the sensuous and imaginative experiences which lie behind each work."
- Frank Manheim, A Garland of Weights

Paperweight collecting often begins with a fascination for these unusual pieces; the awareness of an obscure and compelling art form. Then comes the desire to know more about them: who made them, how are they made, where did they come from, who else collects them, their inherent worth and value.

In the following excerpt from The Encyclopedia of Glass Paperweights, Paul Hollister describes the initial questioning stage of collecting paperweights: "Precisely what is it, one asks, that is inside this paperweight? And continues to ask even when one knows it is simply colored glass. We are gazing into a mystery whose true dimensions and physical composition our senses are unable to pinpoint, a mystery sealed away in perpetuity. You may look at it but you cannot touch it."

After research comes the realization that paperweights have a rich and glorious history. Exactly why the great glasshouses of France (Baccarat, Saint Louis and Clichy) began making paperweights in the mid-1800s remains a mystery. Some scholars believe that the perfection of the millefiori paperweight process was being developed concurrently in Venice, France, and Bohemia during early 184os. There is no dispute, however, about which country quickly assumed the lead in paperweight production. By 1845 France was the undeniable paperweight center of the world. In a remarkably short period of time, the French glass factories had perfected the millefiori technique and introduced and developed the lampwork style. English glass factories were quick to imitate the techniques of the French makers, as were those in the United States, where paperweight production began and ended significantly later than in France. Just as mysterious as their initial appearance and fantastic popularity was their sudden inexplicable decline. After about 1860 the art of paperweight making all but disappeared for eighty years. The paperweights made in France during the classic period remain as inspiration to modern glass artists, who today consider the making of these art pieces the basis of a life's work. Fine contemporary paperweights are now considered to be as well crafted and as collectible as the antiques.

Collecting Glass Paperweights

Collecting glass paperweights often starts as a personal thrill and grows to become a life long passion. The weights themselves reflect the nature and sensibilities of the artist; a collection reflects the personal taste, style, and focus of the collector. Collections of excellence can he based on many factors: style, theme, color, technique, or maker. Particular designs, such as single flowers, floral bouquets, or fruit clusters give ample opportunity for specialized theme collections. An exquisite collection can also be formed by selecting a group of weights from one artist or one studio. The well-known French writer Colette decorated her apartment in the Palais Royale with paperweights, many of which she found in Paris flea markets. King Farouk, Queen Mary, Eva Peron, Truman Capote, Robert Guggenheim, and scores of other famous and infamous personalities have been serious collectors.

The earliest major English paperweight collector was Mrs. Applewhaite-Abbott, who built a collection of several hundred weights between 1900 and 1938. Three hundred of these were sold at auction for $90,000 by Sotheby's in 1952. According to her records, she paid as little as two shillings and not more than £26 for any one of these weights.

Mrs. Evangeline Bergstrom, wife of a Wisconsin paper manufacturer, began her huge collection shortly after the turn of the century. She wrote Old Glass Paperweights in 1940, the first serious American effort to describe the history and manufacture of paperweights. Her collection is now housed at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin.

As one example of the rise in value of a single paperweight, consider the fascinating history of the Pantin silkworm weight. It was first bought by Mrs. Applewhaite-Abbott in the late 1920s for £26. When her collection was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 1953, this one weight sold for £1200. It was purchased at auction for King Farouk by a dealer. However, the day of the auction King Farouk abdicated his throne and the dealer was left with the piece. It was later sold again, and eventually purchased by Paul Jokelson. When the Jokelson collection was sold at Sotheby's in 1983, this weight was bought by Arthur Rubloff for the record breaking price of $143,000. Rubloff gave his entire collection including the prized Pantin weight to the Chicago Art Institute, where it is now on permanent display.

A similar collector's story revolves around another of Paul Jokelson's prized paperweights, the "Bird in the Nest." In 1925, while browsing through the antique shops on the rue des Saint Peres in Paris, a youthful Jokelson spied what he later discovered was a paperweight with a bird in a nest. Although the dealer knew nothing of its history, Jokelson liked it and purchased it for approximately $25. Intrigued, he went on the search for other paperweights in order to learn more about them. Jokelson was soon on his way to collecting antique French paperweights and then sulphides. In 1953, by which time he was an importer and avid collector, he wanted a sulphide of General Eisenhower. He approached the glass factories of Baccarat and Saint Louis with the idea of reviving the classic art. This was a difficult and challenging proposition, since paperweights had not been produced in significant numbers for more than eighty years. Artists and craftsmen spent nearly twenty years in research and experimentation rediscovering the techniques used in making sulphide, millefiori, and lampwork paperweights. Once they succeeded, interest in contemporary paperweights blossomed. As for the "Bird in the Nest," in 1990 it realized the record breaking price of $182,600 at an L. H. Selman Ltd. auction.

Developing a Collection

Many people start with Colette's method of selecting weights for a collection. She chose only what enchanted her, and did not concentrate or fret over small imperfections in the pieces. In her Paris flat her collection literally surrounded her and the sight of these "small frozen gardens" never ceased to bring her great joy. Of her mother's collecting Colette de Jouvenel said, "What would all the vigilant collectors think . . . of the off-hand manner with which my mother gleaned her weights haphazardly during her walks, without being obsessive about it, but with the sign of joy given by the lucky finds at first sight absurd or modest?"

Most collectors, however, soon begin to develop a strategy. There are many different approaches to collecting paperweights. The reason for collecting makes a vast difference in the collection that develops. If one collects strictly for fun, Colette's method is perfect. Pick what pleases the eye and do not be concerned with long-term calculations.

On the other hand, if one is collecting strictly for investment potential, strategy and knowledge of the field must be developed quickly. Happily, most collectors are somewhere in between, with a strong appreciation of the beauty and uniqueness of paperweights, along with an intelligent awareness of their value.

Collections can be built exclusively on antique pieces; contemporary annual editions from Baccarat, Saint Louis, or Perthshire; or fine weights by American studio artists. No matter what approach is taken, the key to developing a good collection is knowledge and attention to quality. Collecting and investing in paperweights is a challenge. This challenge is met with expert advice and prudent buying. As in all fields of collecting, the need to rely on outside expertise decreases as knowledge grows.

What to Look for in a Paperweight

The factors which considerably influence the value of a piece are design, workmanship, condition and rarity. Like beauty, design is in the eye of the beholder. Good color and pleasing arrangement of canes, flowers, or other motifs are extremely important. Acquiring a first-rate paperweight collection, therefore, rests heavily on the collector's ability to evaluate good design. Fortunately, workmanship can be judged objectively. Poor or faulty workmanship shows up in a weight as an imperfection. Although few weights are flawless, major imperfections mar the value of a piece. All true paperweight artists exercise a high degree of quality control so that obviously defective pieces rarely become available. Seconds are systematically destroyed. The collector whose primary consideration is investment should attempt to acquire only first-quality examples.

Here is a checklist of common imperfections found in paperweight motifs:

• Design not well centered
• Design too close to top or sides of dome
• Millefiori canes broken
• Millefiori canes unevenly spaced
• Millefiori canes missing or overcrowded in garland motifs
• Concentric circles of millefiori canes distorted
• Bubbles
• Leaves, stems, or flower petals separated
• Leaves, stems, or flower petals misshapen
• Spiral torsade or air rings incomplete
• Color ground or latticinio cushion broken

In addition, the glass surrounding the subject should be carefully scrutinized because imperfections in any part of the glass will have a direct influence on the relative value of a paperweight.

The overall condition of a paperweight must be considered when contemplating its purchase. Scratches, chips, and bruises may appear on the surface. If enough glass is present in the dome, the weight may be saved by grinding and polishing, a process that involves removing an even layer of glass from the entire weight. Poor grinding and polishing can easily ruin the original shape and optics of the weight by creating an uneven surface that distorts the design. Proper grinding and polishing of a paperweight with sufficient surrounding glass does not devalue it; however, it is critical that such work be done by a professional. The value of some weights has been lowered to as little as ten percent of the original value by poor polishing jobs. Consult with an experienced dealer or collector for the name of a professional conservator.

Generally, the more complicated a weight's production, the more desirable it is thought to be. However, an unusual color, date, or flower in a more common design may affect its value and availability. For instance, the presence of a certain identifiable cane (i.e., silhouette cane or Clichy rose) is a plus. Signatures and/or dates are an uncommon bonus in antique weights; in fine modern weights their inclusion is imperative.

One of the questions most commonly asked by beginning collectors is "How can you tell if a paperweight is an antique?" Unfortunately, it is difficult to answer this question simply and without qualification. Train your eye by examining as many weights as possible, studying photographs, reading, and consulting with knowledgeable collectors and dealers whenever possible. As you become familiar with the subtleties and details that make up fine quality paperweights you will be able to determine the general age of a piece.

Purchasing Paperweights

Even today, choice paperweights can still be found at flea markets and dusty antique shops for incredibly low prices. But this is extremely rare. Serious collectors find most of their pieces through paperweight dealers, private sales, and in auction houses. The rarest and finest antique and modern weights command top prices. But a quality collection can be formed at a reasonable cost.

Among antique weights, scrambled and simple millefiori are generally the least expensive. Some modern limited editions are also moderately priced. Wise paperweight purchases can offer collectors an excellent investment opportunity. Although the market for many other types of glass, especially American art glass and French cameo glass, has experienced broad fluctuations based on fads and fashion, the antique and contemporary paperweight market has shown a steady rise in value. It is important to consult with experts, research pieces carefully, and deal with reputable dealers. Keep in mind that the most important aspect of paperweight collecting is to enjoy yourself and your collection. The obstacles and difficulties are precisely what make the activity compelling.

Larry Selman, All About Paperweights