If you’ve already had a look at our Bookends 101 page, you know that most antique bookends are one of four types: iron, spelter, solid bronze, and bronze-clad. Below are some of our thoughts on common issues.
Same form, Different version
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Many of the best known and collected themes are found in several different versions, often inspired by a single famous painting or sculpture. For example, James Earle Fraser (November 4, 1876 – October 11, 1953) was an American sculptor whose most famous work, End of the Trail, is a life-size bronze sculpture created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. So it follows that its popularity at the time would entice the leading manufacturers of bookends in the 1920s and 1930s to commission artists to recreate it in miniature as bookends, hence, End of the Trail can be found in several sizes by several makers in bronze-clad alone — as well as variations in iron, spelter, and solid bronze. Other bookends patterned after classic works of art include Jean-François Millet’s Angelus and Gleaners, Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln, Cyrus Edwin Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit, Desiderio da Settignano’s Laughing Boy, and many others.
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Patina is the natural oxidation of metal over a long period of time. This thin layer of oxidation on the surface gives antique bronze or copper its characteristic color and sheen — valued, you should be careful not to scratch or otherwise remove the patina. While we are all familiar with the heavy weathered blue/green patina of the Statue of Liberty, most bookends exhibit more subtle variation, perhaps greenish “verdigris” highlights, or dark chocolate patina, or a lighter brassy color. Interestingly, even pairs of “identical” model bookends, from the same maker, made at the same time, can exhibit subtle to striking variations in patina. For example, here are two pair of “Dutch Couple”, both pair made by the Pompeian Bronze Company around 1925.
To clean or not to clean
Many bronze-clad bookends still have their original polychrome paint, but decades of tossed-in-the-attic storage or other abuse may have left them with a layer of dirt. To clean or not to clean? There are several issues. First is that close-to-100-year-old paint is usually quite delicate — Brillo pad plus thirty seconds of effort will completely destroy that original paint (and a goodly portion of their value). Second is that sometimes a little dirt adds character, and so just as well to leave it be. We make the decision one-by-one: To clean a little, a lot, or not at all. And over the years we’ve worked out some careful methods to safely clean painted bookends. So our suggestion: It is safest if you leave your bookends as-is, and don’t try to clean them.
Anomalies and damage
Quality control in the 1920s wasn’t the sort of Six-Sigma thing we take for granted today. Rarely, bronze-clad may have a “miss” where the bronze skin added during the electroforming process either did not form, or was so thin that it broke off shortly after they were made — such a miss is shown above on a pair of bronze-clad Lincoln bookends. Much more common in bronze-clad are “corner bulges”, which at first glance suggest that the bookend was dropped, but upon closer inspection it might turn out that such a bulge or crumple is a manufacturing anomaly, ie: the bulge or damage was present in the plaster before the electroforming process. And we’ve seen all sorts of other anomalies in bronze-clad — though we tend to think of these not as “defects” but instead as testimony that manufacturing in the 1920s had an element of handmade quality to it.
Bronze-clad bookends are relatively delicate. Sturdiness varies quite a lot from model to model and even among individual pairs, and while their feel and weight might lead you to think them indestructible, they are not — if you drop a bronze-clad bookend on the floor there is a very good chance that you will tear the bronze skin, and likely damage the plaster core also. And, it seems that a great many sellers don't examine their wares closely enough to make note of a tear in a hard to see area (or provide photos large and sharp enough for you to make your own determination). Rest assured, our descriptions will always clearly state any miss or tear.
Buy with confidence. Our expertise in antique bookends — along with the many large and sharp photos of our items for sale — provide peace of mind for your purchase.
Next ☞ Makers: Bronze-clad