Friday, August 5, 2011

Collecting: A Focus on Fantasy

Recently on eBay I saw, bid for and won a heavy brass paperweight on a marble slab, shown here. In bas relief It features a bare-breasted young woman holding a bottle high against the familiar Coca Cola logo. Other features are a ribbon on which appear the words “Refreshing and Delicious” and “Atlanta Ga USA.” In small letters in the upper right appear the words “Tiffany Foundry.”

Tiffany Foundry was a enterprise of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) an American artist and designer, shown here, who worked in the decorative arts and is perhaps best known for his work in stained glass. As a foremost adherent of “Art Deco” -- the design of the paperweight -- he also executed numerous metal work items in his foundry, such as the inkwell shown here. Most Tiffany items fetch high prices.

My paperweight is an interesting and attractive piece. It surprised me then to win it with a bid of $15, the price of a modest lunch. Subsequent research revealed, however, that presumably knowledgeable collectors of Coca Cola items, of whom there are many, consider this object a “fantasy.”

The concept was new to me. After some thirty years of looking at, accruing and writing about collectibles, I have become accustomed to looking out for reproductions knowingly or unknowingly sold as the real thing. There are dozens of “repros” that collectors of expensive glass bottles are aware of. Antique watch fobs with value are reproduced (counterfeited?) so frequently that it plagues the hobby.

But “fantasy” items are not reproductions or imitations. They are described by commentators as items that were not designed or in any way issued by the company advertised. In this case Coca Cola. The question remains whether they were meant to fool collectors. Describing them as fantasies seems to me to avoid the question.

The image on my paperweight shows up in other formats, including a belt buckle and a bracelet, shown here. The back of the belt buckle identifies “Tiffany Studio” and “JJ Willard-Phila” as identifying marks. One Coke specialist says: “Unfortunately these buckles are really worthless...Most experts seem to agree that the value of each buckle range from nothing to no more than $10.” ($5 less than I paid for the weight.)

Presumably these fantasies proliferated at one point in history. Shown here is different Coca Cola belt buckle that also is disparaged by the cognoscenti as a fantasy.

The Tiffany folks for a long time were unsure if their foundry had made the items bearing their name because the records had burned during the 1930s and were unavailable. Eventually they decided that the company had not been involved and identified the items as a fraudulent. In the interim, according to reports, some collectors had been gulled to purchase them to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

My paperweight has a felt base and a sticker label, indicating rather recent manufacture, and a reference to the “The Art Mint, Ltd” of St. Louis, Missouri.” Information on this firm is sketchy. It seems not to exist anymore but produced other novelty objects including resin wizard figures, shown here. They surely qualify as fantasy.

For me the personal question remains: Was I defrauded by paying a modest amount for this object, no matter who made it and when, one that has a elegant Art Deco design and format? I don’t think so. It will keep its place in my collection. Given its strong appeal , it would seem ridiculous, regardless of value, to think of this paperweight as something as flighty as a fantasy.

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