Saturday, September 24, 2016

Remembering Boys’ Smudge Pots


On the notion that no innovation should be allowed to be forgotten without a proper memorial, this post is devoted to the smudge pot —  a regular Autumn activity for boys who grew up during World War II.   When I remarked nostalgically on smudge pots to my middle-aged son recently, he knew nothing of them.  Nor did the Internet yield any clue to what I was talking about.  Here and now I intend to correct that lack of knowledge.

The smudge pot has not been ignored completely.  One dictionary definition of “smudge: is a smoky fire, especially one made for safeguarding fruit trees frost or for driving away mosquitoes.  The use in orchards is the image most people have of smudge pots.  As shown here, they have been deployed in the understory of orange groves, heating the air when frost threatens to damage crops.  Note that the device puts out considerable flame as well as smoke.

The second item shown here is meant to drive off mosquitoes and other insects from joining a backyard party.  This smudge pot has been crafted from a tiki lamp that has lost its shaft and, again, spouts more flame than smoke.  Below is still a third mechanism termed smudge pot.  These would be placed as lights at construction sites or railroad crossings to warn motorists about potential hazards.  The one shown was made by the Toledo Torch Company, in my hometown, and burned kerosene.  When filled, it could flame for 24 hours.  I remember as a kid an array of those flickering in the night air when the street in front of our house was paved.  In recent times such pots have been replaced by battery-operated amber flashers or orange cones.
A final traditional item called a smudge pot is a New England fire starter.  According to those in the know, this six inch plus tankard held a foot-long wand with a hunk of pumice at the end.  It  was soaked in fuel in the vessel.  When ready to light a fire, the saturated wand was placed under the logs and the pumice lighted.  It burned long enough to ignite the timber, was allowed to cool, and replaced in the tankard.  Where the “smudge” element was involved escapes me.

In fact, none of these items bear any resemblance to the smudge pots of my boyhood.  The setting was the period during and a few years after World War II.  For most of that time gasoline rationing restricted travel and most outdoors recreation had to be found close to home.  Hence the every Autumn every boy with any interest in neighborhood acceptance had to have a smudge pot.

These were fashioned by the young man himself.  The first component was a gallon paint can, empty or with a small layer of paint congealed on the bottom.  Paint running over the sides, as on the example here, was considered optimal since it lent character to the vessel.  Working with a hammer and a chisel, the maker punched a single hole roughly an inch in diameter near the base of the can. Little care was taken for the symmetry of the opening but an effort was made to leave no rough edges on the outside that might later cut a finger.  
Then a suitable base had to be found.  Requirements were that the board had to be at least a half inch longer than the diameter of the paint can on the sides, allow approximately three inches in front of the hole, and be a little longer at the rear for enhanced stability.  Selecting the right kind of plank and cutting it correctly to fit was important.  Mom’s kitchen cutting board often seemed just right but carried unacceptable risks.  Best to find a cast off piece of lumber in the basement and shape it.  Once this base had been crafted, the paint can was carefully positioned and nailed firmly onto the board.  Five or six nails usually were required. Then an eye-screw with a fairly large opening was attached several inches in front of the punched opening.

A piece of rope — clothesline made a good choice — was stuck through the eye screw and the two ends tied to the rear of a bicycle.  Many bikes had a rear platform with struts and those made a good anchoring place.  Fender struts could also suffice but less well.   Now the smudge pot was ready.  Remember that this is an Autumn activity so that dry leaves were in abundance as fuel.  A good many were stuffed into the paint can and a lighted match applied through the punched hole.  As the leaves began to smolder and burn, the bicycle was ridden through neighborhood streets, hopefully trailing billows of smoke behind.
On a given Saturday fall afternoon a half dozen pre- and early teen boys could be seen peddling furiously hoping that their clouds of glory eclipsed everyone else.  Truth be told, I was never very good at it.  My pot was forever going out and I was forced to stop frequently to relight it.  Whether my hole was too small to push sufficient air into the chamber, or I was not able to ride fast enough, or the leaves were a little wet, my smudge pot too often disappointed.  “Smudge envy” may have scarred my boyhood.

Just think if such a pastime were attempted in 2016.  The cops would be called in an instant on the grounds that a group of terrorists were running around the streets threatening people with fire.  Environmentalists would be shaking a finger at the pollution of the atmosphere.  Safety experts would be exclaiming against the lack of head protection.  In that day, by the way, only sissys wore helmets.  In fact, they may not yet have been invented.  In short, the boyish thrills that smudge pots provided that to that earlier generation, it seems, would be forbidden today.

If this post on smudge pots is to be definitive, it must be mentioned that the term also is used in the contemporary world to describe a ceramic pot filled with sand on which herbs have been mashed together or torn apart in a fashion to let them burn.  They are lighted as shown here and the smoke inhaled.  The aromas are said to induce peace and euphoria. Hmmm.  Finally, below, is an exhibit of smudge pot art.  Here the devices have been turned into lamps and fanciful animals.  
Note:  While writing this post, I have been searching the Internet for a photograph of an actual boys’ smudge pot, but without success.  I refused to believe that this tradition was restricted to a few neighborhoods in Toledo and that kids in other parts of America, particularly the Middle West, were not also riding around madly every Autumn, trailing burning leaves.  Thus it is my hope an Alert Reader will have such a snapshot and let me know.  It would make a valuable addition to this narrative.















Saturday, September 10, 2016

Beer on Wheels Though the Decades


 The process of hauling beer in barrels, bottles and cans has evolved during the past 150 years as transportation itself has changed in America.  Along the way some intriguing vehicles have been used to cart the suds.  Here a sampling of these vehicles is examined, beginning with the oldest down to the new.
John G. Unsoeld was a manufacturer in Detroit, Michigan, of “Trucks, Wagons, and Buggies of all descriptions.”  About 1879 Unsoeld set his hand to design a new and improved beer wagon, shown here.  In his patent application he claimed that his invention was an improvement to the wagons then being used in delivering beer in casks.  There followed a very technical discussion of the mechanics.  Simplified, Unsoeld’s invention was to raise the seat to allow barrels to be placed under the driver, allowing a shorter vehicle.  Whether Unsoeld ever got orders for any of these contraptions is unknown.  Could they have been un-sold?
August Schell's wagon also seems to have raised the driver and it fit more beer barrels by hanging them from chains on each side.  To pull this heavy load the wagon required three horses harnessed in line.  Schell, a immigrant from the Grand Duchy of Baden, emigrated to the United States in the 1850s.  Working initially as a machinist, he gravitated to New Ulm, Minnesota, where in 1860 he founded his brewery.  Today it is the second oldest family-owned brewery in America after Yuengling.  It celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010.

The Mathes Brewery wagon clearly was meant for show, not for hauling.  The big bottle was advertising the company’s Red Ribbon Beer, a Wurzburger lager.  Rather than horses, this rig is being pulled by a pair of mules who seem on this 
serving tray to be dozing.  The tray was issued by Herman A. Mathes, a Burlington, Iowa, producer of beer, soda water and mineral waters.  He was in business, according to directories, from 1892 to 1919, closing with the advent of National Prohibition. 

The next image helpfully has been labeled 1910, a time when motorized vehicles were replacing animal-drawn wagons.  Note that this Coors van has the steering wheel on the right side of the carriage.  It took a while to get automotive details straightened out.  The Coors Brewery got its start in 1873 when German immigrant Adolph Coors with a partner started a brewery in Golden, Colorado, using a recipe for a Pilsner-style beer.  Coors safely survived Prohibition by diversifying its products.
The next photo seems to be trying to prove how much beer could be carted at one time.  Any severe jolt might well have those unsecured barrels at the top cascading down on the three workers.  The information with the photo indicates that the truck was hauling ‘Gansett’ down cobblestone streets in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  The beer itself was the product of the Naragansett Brewing Co., founded in 1890 at Cranston, Rhode Island.  Subsequently it became the largest beer producer in New England.

Still a pre-Prohibition model, the next van marked a definite improvement.  It shielded the driver from wind and rain, allowing him to assume a dapper pose with bowler hat, mustache and sleeve guard.  He was driving for National Brewing Company, and likely imitating “Natty Bo,” the longtime symbol of the beer.  Founded in Baltimore in 1872 and operating until the late 1970s, this brew was very popular with the college crowd during the 1950s and 1960s, largely because it was could be had for about fifty cents a bottle.

Although it is hard to tell, I would put the vintage of this Pacific Beer truck at pre-Prohibition given its hard rubber wheels.  It obviously has been decorated with flowers for a parade, clearly NOT the Pasadena Rose Parade.  The Pacific Beer & Malting Co. was established in Tacoma, Washington, in 1888.  Founders were Scholl and Huth who turned out 260 barrels of beer a day.  The brewery filled a need in Tacoma because beer transported from the East, likely by rail, often lost freshness.
The Buckeye Brewery of Toledo, Ohio, for years featured a waiter with a large head and small body.  Then one day in a bar a brewery executive found Carl Walinski, who not only was a dwarf but also one that could roller-skate.  He became the living symbol of Buckeye beer for years.  Walinski was even given a 3 foot, 6 inch “wife,” called Bonnie.  Although they were not really married, the pair often appeared together before the public, driving up in their miniature beer wagon. 

Moving from the ridiculous to the streamlined, here is a Miller High Life Beer delivery van from 1941.  It was a specially configured Dodge constructed by the H. Barkow Co. of Milwaukee and likely designed by Brooks Stevens, a Milwaukee industrial designer.  The sleek lines were entirely in keeping with the “art deco” styles that were sweeping the nation.  By sculpting the vehicle’s curves, moldings, fenders and paint scheme, the illusion was created of length and decreased height over a relatively short wheel base. 
Given the competition among Milwaukee brewers, Miller almost certainly was reacting to a streamlined fleet of insulated delivery vans maintained by the Schlitz Brewery.  They had been crafted from 1838-1939 Dodge Airflow trucks. Schlitz obviously was not about to let Miller get a jump in the streamlining game and hired the General Body Company of Chicago to design an even jazzier looking vehicle. The same outfit that gave Oscar Meyer its motorized weiner, General Body in 1941 came up with the eye-stopping design shown here.  By that time World War Two had begun, however, and the model got off the drawing board.

Our final brew hauler is a semi carrying a giant can of Heineken Beer.  This rig appears to take beer-hauling to its pinnacle — one giant metal tank holding thousands of gallons of golden liquid on its way to a bottling plant.  Boasting a pedigree in Holland back to 1592, Heineken was the first European beer to be imported into the U.S. after Prohibition was lifted in 1935.

There they are, eleven ways of transporting beer, some antiquated, some quaint, some purposely absurd, and some strikingly well-designed.  These vehicles all served a purpose, most for getting the products of a brewery to a thirsty public, a few for advertising the product.  They all, however, rolled on wheels.











Saturday, August 27, 2016

Remembering Charlie Harbutt and “Natural Light” Photography


Recently I watched the fascinating documentary, “Finding Vivien Meier,” about an eccentric photographer who left behind some 100,000 negatives, many of the images extraordinary.  That night I had trouble sleeping and while dozing was carried back some sixty years to the Journalism College at Marquette University and a fellow student named Charlie Harbutt who espoused a philosophy of “natural light” photography.  He is shown below as a student.
Charlie, who died in July last year,  went on to be one of America’s most noted photographers, former president of Magnum Photos and co-founder of Archive Pictures.  In obituaries he has been hailed as a teacher and mentor to generations of younger photographers.  I am sure of that accolade because at Marquette he influenced his fellow students, including me, with his passionate insistence that to be truly “honest” a photograph should be taken in the light naturally falling on the scene, whether sunshine or lamp light, but without a flash.

Technological changes in camera equipment and film had made that possible in the 1950s.  From the 1930s into the 1960s, the Speed Graphic was the quintessential professional and press camera.  Shown here, the Speed Graphic weighed in five pounds.   One writer has called the camera “…bewilderingly complex, with a Rube Goldberg-esque assortment of features.”   The photographer had a choice of using one of three viewfinders, one of three focusing mechanisms, and one of two shutters. It had a flashgun anchored to one side. Truthfully, I never mastered the beast.

By the time Charlie and I got to college, that did not matter. The twin lens reflex (TLR) had gained popularity in newsrooms and elsewhere where it had become the camera of choice.  TLRs had been around since the 1870s but had evolved by the 1950s into the mechanism shown right, the Rolllei as we called it, standing for Rolliefex or Rolliecord.  Because it used a reflecting mirror to allow viewing from above, the camera could be held very steady and thus allowed slower shutter speeds.  

At the same time Kodak was developing faster and faster film for use in the TLRs.  In 1954 the company released its first high-speed black-and-white film, called Tri-X.  Now usually sold as 400 ASA, I believe that at that time it was 300 ASA.  The combination of higher speed film with slower shutter speeds meant that indoor natural light photography not only was possible, it was practical.  Thus was born the gospel according to Harbutt.
Charlie practiced what he preached.  Above is a photo that he took in the Marquette student union about 1956.  It shows my friend, John Leonard, obviously entranced by a pretty young coed who seems more absorbed in her cup of coffee than with John.  Charlie used the brightness of the reasonably well-lighted cafeteria to capture in natural light this engaging portrait of the two.
After graduation, for the first 20 years of his career, Charlie contributed to major magazines in the United States, Europe and Japan.  He quickly was recognized for the political and social commentary his photographs conveyed.  One of my favorite early Harbutt shots is of a bride waiting to go onto the altar in a church basement where the wedding reception apparently will be held.  Unattended and pensive, she stand on a white cloth so as not to soil the bottom of her gown.  With many others I have found this photo particularly poignant.  Note that it was shot in natural light.

For the first twenty years of his career Charlie contributed to major publications in the United States, Europe and Japan. His work was often deeply political, reflecting his social and economic concerns.  Whether it was Black Power protesters demonstrating in New York City or a impressionistic scheme, he knew how to transmit ideas via black-and-white firm.

Charlie Habutt’s pictures have been widely collected and exhibited at, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney and at the Beaubourg, Bibliotheque Nationale and the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris.  In 1997, his negatives, master prints and archives were acquired for the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Ariz.

It is perhaps fitting that Charlie died while giving a photography seminar in Tennessee.  He was well known as a teacher and mentor in the world of photography.  An associate, Jeff Jacobson, said this of him:  “Charlie was one of the first people teaching workshops and he became very influential.  He…took photojournalism and pushed it in a direction away from literalism or classicism…to something very, very different, very involved with metaphor. That was hugely influential.”

Decades earlier he had profoundly influenced the wanna-be photographers in Copus Hall, the journalism school.  Charlie’s passion for authenticity, linked to using natural light, was powerful.  About that time Kodak issued an experimental firm beyond Tri-X that could be pushed to a very high ASA.  Stiff as cardboard in the darkroom, I used it for a series of indoor natural light photos for Marquette yearbooks that were notable for being very, very grainy.  Sometimes the technique worked better, as in personal shots of a museum cloister and my grandfather’s shed.
I saw Charlie Harbutt only once after he graduated when our career paths diverged widely.  But his ideas about photography have stayed with me ever since.  I particularly ponder a statement he made in his 1974 book, “Travelog.”  Entitled, “I Don’t Take Pictures, Pictures Take Me,”  Charlie said:  “That magic little box enables one to leave, in a small way and for a short while, one’s own time and space and to occupy, maybe only superficially, another time and space:  a then and there that really existed as a here and now.”  And, obviously, existed in natural light.
















Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Valley Tan” — The Utah Mormon Whiskey

 Whether it is fair to call “Valley Tan” a Mormon whiskey may be open to question.  The facts are these:  1) It was produced in Mormon Utah, 2) it was prominently associated with Mormon Utah, and 3) the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, for several years had exclusive control over liquor distilling and sales in the state.  A bottle of Valley Tan is shown right.

The term, “Valley Tan” was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah.  One of the first industries introduced in Salt Lake Valley by the Mormons was leather tanning.  Because the tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of Utah home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including making whiskey.
Prominent witnesses have attested to the raw-boned nature of this liquor.  Among them was Mark Twain.  In 1871 he visited Mormon Utah and was given a taste of Valley Tan.  No stranger to strong drink, Twain found it potent.  His subsequent book, “Roughing It,” contained a story about a fellow traveling with Twain named Bemis who came into his Salt Lake City hotel room about 11 P.M., “…Talking loosely, disjointedly and indiscriminately, and every now and then tugging out a ragged word that had more hiccups than syllables in it.”   Twain then describes how Bemis threw off some of his clothing, pronounced it “too many for him,” and went to bed with his boots on.

At first, Twain wrote, his companions thought it was something he had eaten. “But we knew afterward that it was something he had been drinking.  It was the exclusively Mormon refresher, ‘Valley Tan.’”  The author then explained: “Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; it is of Mormon invention and  manufactured only in Utah.  Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone.”

Another encounter with Valley Tan was narrated by the famed explorer and adventurer, Sir Richard Burton, shown right, who in 1860 stopped to explore Salt Lake City and its environs.   Among the people Burton was eager to meet was Orrin Porter Rockwell, a notorious figure with a reputation as a ”mountain man,” Mormon enforcer, and accused killer, wanted in Missouri.  At this point Rockwell had been appointed deputy marshall of Salt Lake City.  His violent reputation had preceded him, however, and Burton was anxious to meet Rockwell.

Their encounter occurred over dinner one night at the home of a mutual friend just outside town.  The notorious Mormon the Englishman encountered was “…a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his large spurs, and the saw handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.”  Rockwell and Burton apparently hit it off from the beginning:  Rockwell pulled out a dollar Burton later wrote, and sent to “the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.

“We were asked to join him in a ‘squar’ drink, which means spirits without water.  Of these we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerving, and he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.”
Burton apparently stayed with him, drink for drink, as the mountain man gave him advice about Burton’s plans to travel overland to California.  Sir Richard later sent Rockwell a bottle of brandy as thanks, never remarking on the quality of Valley Tan.
Another link from the Church of the Latter Day Saints to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store established by Brigham Young to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City.  Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown above, sold Valley Tan.   That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing.  Young is shown here pictured on a Pabst beer issued mug issued in 1897 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Mormons in Utah.

As for Brigham Young himself, he seems to have been of two minds on the subject of alcohol.  He claimed never to have tasted whiskey, and his son-in-law William Hooper said, “Brigham Young hates intemperance and its evils, and who, if he could have, would never have made a drop or permitted a drop to enter Utah. He wishes that all the whiskey that the Gentiles brought had been so filled with poison as to have killed all who drank it.”  The Mormon leader himself has been quoted saying:  “If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”

That said, in 1873, the territorial legislature granted Brigham Young the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors in Utah.  He did not have to “blow out the brains” of the whiskey makers, just usurp their activities.   Among the products of this Mormon monopoly was Valley Tan. As one writer has explained:  “…Young generated a large amount of revenue for his new territory by taxing and controlling the very liquor he manufactured, yet despised.”

Because Young died in 1877, it is questionable how long this monopoly over alcoholic drink lasted.  Certainly as the 19th Century wore on, other Utah residents were active in the whiskey trade.  Among them was Fred Kiesel who established a liquor house in Ogden, Utah, in 1887.  Kiesel was a “Gentile” who enjoyed tweaking the Mormon establishment.   Certainly among his jabs was issuing his own Valley Tan whiskey and advertising it with a picture of the Brigham Young monument that stood in downtown Salt Lake City.  Shown here is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as “Pioneer of Whiskies.”  The other side has advertises “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.
With the coming of statewide prohibition in Utah in 1917 and National Prohibition in 1920, Valley Tan disappeared from the national scene and seemingly was not revived after Repeal in 1934.   In recent years, however, Valley Tan brand whiskey has made a re-appearance.  In 2007 a Colorado native named David Perkins opened Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s in a village called Wanship, about 37 miles from Salt Lake City.  Perkins claims it was from Burton’s writings that he found the recipe for Valley Tan.  Apparently originally it was made from wheat and potatoes.  Perkins uses just wheat for his whiskey and claims that his “Valley Tan is lighter and more delicate than other whiskeys — perfect for sipping.”   Certainly this is a far cry from Mark Twain’s “fire and brimstone” Valley Tan, the Mormon whiskey.












                


Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Slightly Irreverent Look at Auction Terminology


During years of combing regularly through online auction sites and printed auction catalogues to locate items of interesting for my own (changing) collecting interests, I have developed my own interpretation of auction terminology.  Here in alphabetical order is my personal lexicon:

Antique:  According to common practice and import laws, “antique’ applies to an object that is at least 100 years old.   While a pair of worn out boots that have been lying in the attic for decades might qualify on age, unless they were worn by George Washington, they do not qualify as something worth collecting.  Yet every day on internet auction sites items that might be 100 years are offered as antiques when they might better be relegated to the garbage can. Often too items are offered as antiques such as the blue and while vase here.  It recently was offered up as an antique.  Yet I have one similar to it that I bought off the equivalent of a Chinese pottery assembly line some years ago, after watching the artisans at work.  In 90 years mine may qualify as antique.

As Is:  Red flags should be raised every time this is a description of an auctioned item.   For example a Philadelphia art frame shop that was in the process of downsizing, offered the art print shown left “as is.” It is wrinkled and torn, the reason given that it was stored for 40 years at the bottom of a file.  While it might reasonably be sent to the recycling bin, the owner helpfully suggest that if it were matted “it would just about eliminate the losses.”  Problem is, anything that might cover the torn part likely would jeopardize the integrity of the image, even to erasing part of the artist’s signature.

Attributed To:  I have some expertise in Theumler ceramics from the Pittsburgh area, pre-1908 when Otto Theumler died.  He marked many of his pieces but not all.  Because there are collectors of his beer mugs and steins, I often see on auction sites attributions to Theumler.  Often very little about the item, its size, shape or decoration bespeaks his work.  But this is small potatoes compared to the art market.   Above is a picture at Internet auction “attributed to” Albert Bierstadt,” a well recognized 19th century American artist whose paintings hang in many of the Nation’s museums.  The painting is done in his style but lacks a signature.  Recently a New York City paper quoted an art dealer commenting on an unsigned scene that that a seller had claimed also was a work by Bierstadt.  “I am bombarded with fakes,”  the dealer said, referencing the painting.  “Wherever you turn there’s a fake out there.”   In short, hold on to your wallet when “attributed to” is proposed.
Best Match:  This is strictly an eBay concept.  Each morning when I run through my roster of newly listed items to watch and possibly bid on, eBay helpfully puts up a string of “best match” items.  Recently, for example, the internet auction site put foremost for my attention, a paperweight with “Mother” embedded in it.  While from time to time I do buy weights, I have never bought one even close to it.  Who or what decided that this was a match for me?   My suspicion is that the sellers of these items are paying something extra to be thrust into my attention —and irritate me.

Estimate:  Auction houses almost always provide an estimate of what a item should sell for, usually expressed in a range.  If an item sells for a great deal more than its estimate at a New York art sale, it often makes the papers.  If it fails to sell, that may be publicized as well.  It the selling price falls within the estimate, that is “ho-hum” and no one seems to care.
Important:  This is a favorite buzz word for some auction houses.  Showing a handled urn such as illustrated above, the catalogue or auctioneer sometimes will anoint it as “important.” No one ever says important to whom or why.  Just important.  Often the items seems as undistinguished as this urn.  My interpretation of this term that it is important for the auction house to sell the item and get it out of its storeroom where it is taking up space from something presumably more important.

Provenance:  Publications issued by museums to illustrate their holdings often contain the history of ownership for each of the art works shown in order to validate its identification.  Over the years some art works have passed from owner to owner before being acquired by a museum.  I find it fascinating to track the succession.  That said, too frequently I see feints at provenance like the one provided for the painting shown here:  “Unframed gouache on paper signed illegibly to my eye and dated (appears to be '60, for 1960). Provenance: Arthur Nevin Gallery, Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The painting has a German Expressionist feel to it.”  These sentences are followed by a long paragraph on German Expressionism.  All this is patent nonsense.  The art work obviously was done well after that era and, besides, is amateurish in execution.  It is also damaged, although the seller rhapsodizes:  “A great piece with a real presence to it!”

Rare:  This is one of my favorite auction terms, seen frequently on internet auction sites, as in “rare beanie baby.”  That is, rare in the eyes of the seller who may be 1) stretching the truth a bit knowing that 100,000 were issued, or 2) has just not seen one in the recent past.  I have seen items listed as “rare” that I owned once and know that there are hundreds of others out there just like it. Rarity, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, especially if the beholder owns it and wants to sell.  Case in point:  this headline from eBay: 32.15 CTs NATURAL RARE BLACK NEEDLE IN PREHNITE PEAR CABOCHON.  This is a jewel made from a gemstone found in South Africa.  Who really knows how frequently a “black needle” shows up in prehnite?  

Salesman Sample:  This is a favorite description of miniature items being sold on internet auctions.  It is supposed to confer worth, indicating that there are just a few of these in circulation.  Here for illustration is a  pot bellied stove that was touted on eBay as a salesman sample.  It weighs more than 12 pounds. I have a hard time believing that many traveling “drummers” carried around suitcases full of these to be shown or gifted to potential customers.  Whatever their purpose, these items may well exist in the thousands.

Sold for:  Some sellers like to cite a prior sale of an item (obviously not “rare”) that fetched a very handsome price and upon which they are basing their estimate of value.  Harry Rinker, a recognized expert on antiques, has provided some wisdom on “sold for.”  He notes that in some auctions two or more collectors will vie aggressively for the same item and drive up prices.  He suggests that in that case the amount a third bidder was willing to pay would approximate the true value.  Personally, I have found that view to be insightful. An example is this advertising beer mug.  It sold for $369.89 recently on eBay. The second high bidder went to $364.89 before dropping out.  Using Rinker's rule, the third bidder at $250 likely is a better gauge of its worth.

Vintage: Normally a term associated with wine, “vintage” has morphed into the lexicon of internet auction sellers.  I take it to mean items that have have not reached the age to be considered antiquities, but are old enough not to have been made yesterday.   Generally the terms refer to the 1930s through the 1960s.  But not always.  Here is a pendant being sold on eBay that was described as “vintage” in its headline.  A careful reading of the description indicates that is a brand new item and but that the dragon image is considered “vintage” by the seller. 

If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this lexicon it is “buyer beware” and know as much about an auction purchase as possible before it is made.  My object lesson is a tall wooden statue of St. George and the dragon I bought in 1970 at a dusty antique store in Guatemala City.  Assured by a companion that it must be quite old,  after I had paid and the dealer was wrapping up I asked him how old it was.  “Oh,” he said, “we made it here.”   I later sold it at a yard sale for $2.00.

Note:  By my count this post marks the 200th on my “Bottles Booze and Back Stories” blog.  Begun in April 2009, it has covered topics indicated by the title and many areas beyond, all in keeping with the motto: “More Things Than You Can Shake a Stick At.”  As of this date I have had more than 227,000 “hits” on the blog and 11 “followers,”  many of them likely my relatives.  For the foreseeable future, I will be continuing to add posts to this blog approximately every two weeks.