July 9, 2008
Metal Figures Are Late Victorian
By HELAINE FENDELMAN and JOE ROSSON, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
Q. We have no clue regarding the history, age or genre of these two peasant figures. Are you able to help us identify them?
This pair were made from a silvery-gray metal that is rather soft and easily cast. It's primarily zinc alloyed with small amounts of one or more other metals, such as bismuth, copper, aluminum, magnesium, lead or tin.
Though it's sometimes called "white metal" or "pot metal," the correct and most common term is "spelter." (The word also applies to pure zinc.) Spelter was first cast into ornamental objects about 1860. Large quantities of this metal were used to make decorative copies suggested by pieces of sculpture and other works of art.
The figures in today's question may have graced a mantel in a late-Victorian home. Metal objects made by artists traditionally were cast in bronze. Images cast in spelter were meant for decoration only but couldn't pass as art.
Often, spelter pieces have a coating that makes the surface resemble bronzes, but this deception is easily detected. Underneath the metal itself is telltale silvery gray, not the rich brown of true bronze. Some spelter objects have been "cold painted," meaning the surface was embellished with pigments that were not "fired on" or more permanently affixed with heat.
These "cold-painted" finishes are delicate. With time and even a little wear, they can flake off, exposing the unattractive grayish metal. This can be unsightly, and figures with badly flaked paint are greatly devalued. Unfortunately, the two figures the reader owns have areas of significant paint loss, which hurts them aesthetically and monetarily.
Spelter figures represent cavaliers, musicians, classical and myth-ological characters, literary figures such as Milton and Shakespeare, Art Nouveau-style women and workers (particularly smiths and peasant farmers), to name a few.
These male and female figures are shown with winnowing baskets, used to separate grain from chaff. The man holds a rake. Agricultural workers such as these were widely romanticized in the late-Victorian world, and this particular pair was made somewhere in Continental Europe possibly France.
Because of the badly flaking paint, the pair's insurance- replacement value is probably in the neighborhood of $250 to $300. It does not exceed $500.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Write them at Treasures in Your Attic, 5201 Kingston Pike, Suite 6-323, Knoxville, TN. 37919; e- mail [email protected]
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