Antiques & Collecting: Enamel on metal has inspired artists for ages

Enamel has been used to decorate metal since medieval times, creating elaborate designs on copper, silver and other metals. Early pieces made in Europe, especially pieces used in religious services, were created in ever-changing styles.

Enameled pieces for home use were rare before the 1800s. Around 1880, a few artists on the East Coast made plaques picturing nature to decorate a metal box or lid for a bowl. These pieces by artists like Gertrude Twitchel sell for thousands of dollars today. Some art schools taught enamel craft, although by the 1930s, interest lagged. But in the 1940s and ’50s, enameling materials were easier to work with, and art schools again gave classes.

Enameled metal bowls and ashtrays were favored gifts. Modern jewelry, vases, desk sets and even large wall plaques were made in art schools, especially in Boston, Cleveland and California. Colorful geometric designs, flower forms and imaginative modern creatures were favored. Artists signed the enamels on the front or back if selling through a shop, but many independent artists, some amateurs, left their work unsigned.

An 11-inch-diameter shallow bowl with a stylized picture of a rooster, fish and three large, round, thin-line designs on the front was signed “Karamu OH Hykes” on the back. It was unidentified when first offered for sale, but a Cleveland collector realized it was made by Sterling Vance Hykes (1917-1974), a talented artist teaching at Karamu, a Cleveland settlement house. His work sells for several thousand dollars today. Unidentified, it would probably bring about $400 or so because of the talent it showed.

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Q: I bought a small stand at an estate sale several years ago. It has three drawers in the middle and half-round compartments with hinged lids on either side. The bottom drawer is larger than the other two. It has turned wood legs and is about 28 inches high. I’m not sure what it’s called, but I think it was made to store knitting needles and yarn in the side compartments. What can you tell me about it?

A: You have a sewing cabinet, used to hold sewing or knitting supplies and material. The compartments on the sides are called project pockets. Cabinets in this style are called Martha Washington sewing cabinets, although she did not have a cabinet like this. Her sewing table had open shelves. Martha Washington sewing cabinets were popular in the 1920 and ’30s. They were inexpensive pieces of furniture. Cabinets like this sell today for $70 to $175 depending on condition.

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Q: When I unpacked some Johnson Brothers Old Staffordshire dishes after two years of no use, there was a brownish powder coming from the dinner plates. Are they safe to use? Would they have lead glaze? The plates were in my family from the 1950s.

A: The brownish powder may have come from the packing materials or the cardboard box the dishes were packed in. Some antique porcelain was decorated with lead glaze. If the glaze is cracked or chipped, the lead can leach out. It’s best not to eat highly acidic food on old china, and do not store food in it. The Food and Drug Administration set regulations on the amount of lead in glazes on ceramic dishes used for food in 1971. The standards have been revised since then. Dishes don’t have to be lead-free, but plates cannot contain more than 3 parts per million of leachable lead. Your dishes were made before those safety standards were set. The only way to determine if the glaze on your dishes has lead in it is to test it. You can buy a home lead testing kit or see if your local health department can test the dishes.


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.

Stein, regimental, lithophane, Infantry Regiment 11th Co., Munchen (Munich), 1903-1905, scenes, soldiers, rampant lion, banners, pewter lid with injured soldier holding drink, Germany, 11 inches, $25.

Jewelry, necklace, bead, amber, faceted, various shapes and shading, 1920s, 56 inches, $275.


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