The Writer’s Personal Experience with Glassware in “As-Found” Condition
In the late 1970s the writer inherited several pieces of American cut glass that had been in his family since they were purchased early in the twentieth century and, again, in the early 1930s. Although they were used only on special occasions, mainly holidays, those items that were cut in the nineteenth century’s rich-cut style had, not surprisingly, acquired a number of chips. Having never heard of “repairmen” and what they could do, the writer resigned himself to living with chips for the rest of his life! Fortunately, however, a chance remark made to an antiques dealer who had a quality shop in New Haven, CT led him to have the damage repaired by an Irish glass cutter who was trained to cut (but not to repair) glass at the Waterford factory and in England. After gaining additional experience in Canada, the cutter moved to the States where he discovered the market that exists here for the repairing of American brilliant cut glass, the existence of which he was not made aware of in either Ireland or England. As a result, he began specializing in this type of work. Although he did a fair amount of work for the shopkeepers of New Haven’s antiques row during the 70s and 80s, his main business was with dealers who routinely exhibited at major antique shows around the country. In fact, at this time most of his main customers were these dealers. If the reader routinely attends such shows he undoubtedly has seen this cutter’s handiwork (“never noticed . . . always appreciated”).
The first time one has one’s personal cut glass “worked on” can be a traumatic experience. At least it was for this writer, in spite of the high praise the repairman had received from his customers. Because the writer eventually had him attend to hundreds of pieces of cut glass during the next decade, it should be clear to the reader that he had no cause to hesitate in having this work done. During this time the writer became more and more a dealer and less and less a collector — and the inherited pieces were eventually sold (note 1). As a result, the writer’s perspective changed: A collector who plans to keep an item indefinitely has a different point-of-view than a dealer who must sell the item at a profit — and the sooner the better.
From the late 1980s onward, the writer was living far from New Haven and, at least partially because of this, but also because he found little glass of quality at reasonable prices in his new location — the Catskills of New York State — he stopped visiting the repairman. Although he still buys cut glass for resale — and sometimes does so on eBay — he always offers it as he finds it, in other words in “as found” condition, thereby leaving the decision as to whether to have the piece repaired or not up to the buyer. Over time the writer has learned what damage can and what damage can not — be repaired. It is a mark of superior craftsmanship that the New Haven repairman (now working near Pittsburgh) was unable to repair only one of the many pieces of cut glass the writer brought him over the years.
The selling of as-found cut glass has been a satisfactory arrangement for mail orders from regular customers who are familiar with the writer’s ability to assess an item’s condition. It is subsequently discussed in detail on the phone or by e-mail. The writer has found that it is possible to sell glass that is in less than perfect contition once rapport has been established between himself and the buyer. But both buyer and seller should be aware of the unwritten rule: the older the cut-glass item is, the less should be the need for restoration. There is something vaguely obscene about having 200-year old cut glass restored to “factory-fresh” condition.
Were the writer to exhibit at antique shows, the foregoing business model would probably not be satisfactory because there he would encounter customers who had been “trained” by the exhibiting dealers to expect to find all antique glassware in perfect condtion. As a result, he would have to have all of his glass “restored,” and this would be accompanied by additional expense, not to mention the increased personal stress that would result from having to have such items shipped back-and-forth-and-beyond.
If one decides to embark on the “repairs” route, he should, of course, choose a repairman who is technically proficient. Ideally the repairman should be able to cut glass using both “overhand” and “underhand” techniques. While the former is standard, it is sometimes necessary, especially on closed items that are heavily cut, to repair an item’s pattern using the underhand technique. Not all cutters are able to do this. An ability to engrave glass is also desirable and is sometimes necessary.
The repairman should also have the ability to reshape repaired areas in order to preserve symmetry and balance. To take a simple example: If it is necessary to recut the fan scallop at one end of a celery tray — a common repair — the fan scallop’s neighboring fans often must also be recut in order to match the repaired scallop. Additionally, the repairman must then attend to the opposite, undamaged end of the tray, recutting it, if necessary, to match the repaired end, thus preserving the celery tray’s symmetry and balance.
In more complicated repairs, the workman must sometimes reshape an item in order to have sufficient glass with which to work. While poorly repaired glass can often be re-repaired, this can be a challenge to the repairman because a loss of glass has taken place. Poorly executed repairs should, of course, be avoided in the first place.
The repairman is always working “to fool the eye.” If he accurately carries out his repairs and takes this into account, his work will be invisible. While the “good eye” that is necessary can be sharpened through practice, it seems to be an intrinsic characteristic that only the best repairmen possess.
In addition to being informed by the repairman as to what he can (and can not) do, the customer with glass to be repaired should expect a cost estimate as well as an estimated date when the repaired item will be ready for pickup. He should also understand that the repairman can not take responsibility for any accidental damage that might occur while the item is in his possession. Accidents do happen. Normally, the client must accept his loss together with an apology from the repairman. While the client may have insurance, it is unlikely that repairman will have any.
Because the repairman is working for his client, he will normally undertake any work that is suggested, providing that it is feasible. For example, should a client wish to have a piece of cut glass “enhanced” with additional cutting or a piece of glass recut in order to eliminate a poor acid-polishing job, he will likely find the repairman agreeable. He is likely to agree to such requests because he regards that anything the happens subsequently is between his client and his client’s buyer. He applies his expertise to an item even though he suspects that his client will not pass along this information. This includes everything — from scratching a number on a replacement stopper to changing simple fans into notched prism flares. This type of “repair” probably occurs more frequently than what one might suspect. If it is not disclosed, it is dishonest.
Instances of ordinary repairs are similar to the foregoing, but are, of course, much less extreme than “enhancing” an item’s appearance beyond what it originally was. It sometimes seems that repairs — no matter how minor or how extensive — are actually expected in today’s marketplace. They have, infact, moved from being a somewhat secret topic, say twenty-five years ago, to one that is much more openly discussed today. But it is, nevertheless, rare to find an item’s repair history disclosed when it is advertised for sale — either online or in ads such as those that appear monthly in the American Cut Glass Association’s publication The Hobstar. Thus, it is still necessary for the buyer to ask questions and to be aware of the kinds of repair work that can be encounter today.
The prospective buyer of cut glass from sellers who are new or unknown to him should not place too great a reliance on the fact that these sellers may be members of a glass organization. While most such organizations have strictures against outright fraud, “repairs” constitute a grey area — regulations are often weak or non-existent. It is, therefore, necessary for the buyer to do his homework before any purchase is made. He should keep a record of the seller’s advertisements. If he finds that his glass is always advertised as being in “excellent” condition — the word “mint,” having been misused for many years, is no longer popular — he should suspect that repairs probably have been made. Consequently, he should make detailed inquiries concerning the item’s condition and history. He will probably be told the truth. But is it up to the buyer to initiate such inquiries? The writer believes that it is not; it is up to the seller to volunteer all that he knows (and suspects) about the glass he intends to sell.
When the writer began to sell cut glass, he briefly described any repairs he had had done in his description of the piece. As a result, he had no inquiries and sold nothing for several months. Only when he acted on the suggestions of experienced dealers in glass and mentioned neither repairs nor condition did he begin to receive telephone inquiries. An unfortunate situation, but at least a door was opened, and he could then describe to his inquirer any repairs that he may have had done, as well as any repairs that he (and his repairman) suspect were carried out in the past. Prior repairs include “touch-up” repairs made at the factory prior to shipment. Probably 5-10% of the glass the writer has seen has shown this type of repair. It was often hastily done, and he, therefore, has had to have his repairman “finish the job” in order to make the repair disappear!
Now that the library of cut-glass catalogs is growing every year, and is widely available, buyers and sellers alike have advantages never dreamed of during the age of limited information and fuzzy photographs. Dealers and collectors can now be much more informed than ever, but only if they choose to be so. Laziness is their chief nemesis. Ample information is usually available, but it must be gathered and used.
Today it is relatively easy for both participants — sellers and buyers — in the “game” of cut glass to reach an informed decision as to what (if anything) to do with a cut-glass item that is in less than perfect condition. However, any such decision is ultimately an individual decision — there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the many questions raised by antique glassware that has been damaged.
1. The third and fourth Boggess books contain photographs of some of the glass that the writer has had restored:
In B3 (COLLECTING AMERICAN BRILLIANT CUT GLASS):
Illus. 393, p. 116: Hollow Diamond pattern cut on vase shape no. 836 by Dorflinger. A broken tooth was repaired and the entire rim reshaped and recut. The height of the vase was consequently reduced half an inch to 15.5″ (39.3 cm). Top D = 6″ (15.2 cm), base D = 5.75″ (14.6 cm), wt = 7.75 lb (3.5 kg). Sold for $400 in 1982.
Illus. 543, p. 146: Inherited. Vase cut in the Kent pattern by Hawkes, signed. Chip on one tooth repaired, not necessary to recut entire rim. Blank is one-half inch thick. H = 14.25″ (36.2 cm), max D = 6.5″ (16.5 cm), wt = 7.75″ (3.5 kg). Sold for $900 in 1991.
In B4 (REFLECTIONS ON AMERICAN BRILLIANT CUT GLASS):
Illus. 746, p. 180: Footed, red cut-to-clear decanter in the Star & Hobnail pattern, manufacturer unknown. The stopper is a replacement. Original probably had a red overlay and was cut in-pattern. 48-pt radiant star on foot. H = 13.5″ (34.3 cm), max D = 4″ (10.2 cm), wt = 2.25 lb (1 kg). Sold for $650 in 1984.
Illus. 929, p. 224: Inherited. Mixer with an unknown rock-crystal pattern by Hawkes, signed. Uncertain as to this item’s purpose, the writer’s family never used it! No restoration needed. H = 16″ (40.6 cm), base D = 4.5″ (11.4 cm), wt = 2 lb (0.9 kg). Sold for $200 in 1982. This item was probably a wedding present for the writer’s parents in 1930.