Antiques & Collecting: Kem Weber’s designs ahead of their time
Kem Weber (1889-1963) followed a strange path in his life, going from a farmer in Berlin to a famous modern architect and designer in the United States. He apprenticed in 1908 under a famous cabinetmaker. In 1926, he was chosen to supervise the construction of the German Pavilion at the 1910 exhibition in Brussels. A few years later, he went to California to design the German exhibit at the 1915 exhibition in San Francisco.
But he was trapped in America by World War I and was refused permission to return home to Germany when the war ended. He had several art-related jobs. He taught art in a studio in Santa Barbara, and in 1921 he went to Los Angeles and worked in the design studio of a furniture and decorating store.
In 1924, he became an American citizen. By 1926, he was the only designer and cabinetmaker producing modern designs on the West Coast. He created now-famous silver cocktail shakers and tea sets, and he decorated homes and store interiors. In 1934, he created his famous sleek “Airline” chair. It was made to be taken apart so the pieces could be packed flat for inexpensive shipping. He was the main architect for Walt Disney Studios by 1939, and Disney ordered 300 of the chairs, but no more were made until 1993. His designs influenced many others while he continued to teach and design private houses.
Today, streamlined designs by Kem Weber are famous and hard to find. A set of four unmarked Airline chairs were estimated at $8,000 to $10,000 at a Rago auction recently, but they did not sell. Perhaps the historic design is still a little ahead of its time.
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Q. I’d like information on my Sears Kenmore sewing machine, Model No. 117-959. It’s electric and sits in its own cabinet. When the cabinet lid is open, the sewing machine lifts without being pulled up.
A. Sewing machines with electric motors were first sold in 1889. Sears began selling Kenmore sewing machines in 1913. Several manufacturers made sewing machines for Sears until the Kenmore line was discontinued in 2012. Kenmore Model No. 117-959 was made for Sears by the White Sewing Machine Company beginning in 1948. It sells online for $75 to $130. Some collectors look for antique machines with fancy iron bases and gilt decoration. They sell into the hundreds, even over $1,000.
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Q. My uncle was a medic during World War II. He brought back pictures of piles of dead bodies in the death camps. What would you suggest I do with these pictures? They are 3-by-3-inch camera size.
A. Pictures from the concentration camps (the death camps) would be of interest to historians and might sell at auction. There are auctions that specialize in photographs and other historical items pertaining to World War II and the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum might also be interested in them.
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Q. How can I determine whether there is lead in older china, especially in pieces I intend to use for food? I was told by a friend there is a test kit for lead, and that the kits are available in hardware stores. In the hardware stores I checked, the kits were for checking lead in drinking water, not china. Is there such a kit for testing the safety of older china?
A. You can order kits online that test for lead, but the most reliable tests are done with professional equipment. It’s not how much lead is in the dish, but how much lead leaches out. In 1971, the Food and Drug Administration set limits on the amount of lead in dishware; the regulations were updated in 1993. New dishes that don’t meet the standards must be marked “Not for Food Use” or designed with holes so the dish can’t be used for food. Dishes made before the standards were set, the brightly colored pottery made in other countries or handmade dishes, may have glazes that leach. Don’t use the dish if the glaze is damaged, cracked or painted silver decoration that has turned black. Acidic foods, hot liquids, microwaving and washing dishes in the intense heat of the dishwasher all may cause leaching.
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Q. I am trying to find out more about a teacup from my mother’s collection. How do I research the mark and the value?
A. It’s like solving a crime, and it takes time. Follow the clues. First, look up the mark by shape. Pottery marks are sorted by shape in the book “Kovels Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain.” Or you can search online. Your mark has a shield and crown with the word “Germany,” so search in those sections. We found a match that says the mark was used by Galluba and Hofmann from 1905 to 1937. The German company made decorative porcelain, dolls (especially bathing beauties) and gift wares, but it is best known for making Snowbabies. Other marks for this company have the word “Marmorzellan.” Now search for prices in a book like “Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide.” Category: Porcelain. You may not find a teacup by the same company, but you can find other German dishes of the same period and get an approximate value. Or you can go to a matching service with the information and search its prices. A single cup from a set has a low price because there is little demand for old patterns or buyers who are looking to replace a missing cup. The price is under $20. Appraisals always depend on when and where something is sold. You might learn your piece isn’t an expensive treasure, but it’s still a part of your heritage worth keeping.
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TIP: Don’t wear jewelry when gardening, playing sports or working with tools. You may damage a stone or lose it. Even diamonds can chip or crack.
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Terry Kovel and Kim Kovel answer questions sent to the column. By sending a letter with a question and a picture, you give full permission for use in the column or any other Kovel forum. Names, addresses or email addresses will not be published. We cannot guarantee the return of photographs, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. The amount of mail makes personal answers or appraisals impossible. Write to Kovels, The Journal, New Ulm, King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803.
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Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions.
Birdcage, green base, shell door, hoop shaped stand, 66 inches, $25.
Vase, earthenware, gunmetal glaze, incised, applied shapes, footed, signed “Ted Randall,” contemporary, 12 1/2 x 16 inches, $315.
Liverpool Creamware Jug, The Two Brothers, clipper ship, American flag, pennant, seal of the United States, 8 inches, $460.
Tea Set, Tiffany & Co. Hamilton pattern, coffee pot, ebonized handle, lidded cream, cream jug, 3 piece, $540.
Hall tree, Gothic Revival, walnut, arched mirror, three drawers, gallery, masks, hooks, 96 x 48 inches, $1,350.
Phonograph lamp, Burns Pollack, electric, octagonal shade, crochet, tassels, black, footed, 28 x 18 inches, $1,720.
Boot scraper, ram’s horn terminals, wrought iron, set in a sandstone block, Virginia, c. 1925, 15 1/2 x 19 inches, $1,600.
Letter opener, gilded silver, nephrite, enamel, double eagle finial, laurel leaf swag, wooden box, 11 1/2 x 1 inches, $2,460.
Vase, Grueby, raised wide leaves, stems, flower buds, matte green, Ruth Erickson, 7 1/2 inches, $2,950.
Weathervane, crowing rooster, stands on ball, copper, mounted on stand, c. 1900, 36 inches, $4,920.
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