Editor’s Note: The blogs posted this month feature lesser-known personal discoveries that can provide enjoyable holiday outings.
One evening in late October, I entered Studio 207 in the Fine Arts Building and discovered a whole new world. For several long moments, I stood transfixed by the sight of approximately 700 paperweights on display in long glass cases.
In my mind, paperweights are associated with Chicago real estate developer and fanatical collector, Arthur Rubloff, who donated his collection of 1472 rare and beautiful objects to the Art Institute in 1978.
Paperweights, however, suffer a reputation as being an art world lightweight. The latest slap came in today’s Chicago Tribune (Dec. 21) where the writer says Rubloff’s collection has little place in the museum. The Art Institute seems to share a similar view of this decorative art since it displays them in the lower level near the famous Thorne Rooms in a scenario reminiscent of “Upstairs/Downstairs”.
I imagined that paperweight production had ceased in recent years. Not so. In speaking with Alexis Magaro, the gallery manager, I learned that a large number of highly-skilled artisans are producing new, imaginative designs with many on display at the studio.
The studio is the new home of L.H. Selman Ltd. It is named for Lawrence Selman, one of the world’s leading paperweight collectors (he assembled Rubloff’s collection). In 2009, two brothers, Ben and Mitch Clark, who come from a family of paperweight collectors, bought Selman’s collection and shipped it from California to Chicago.
In fact, Chicago houses the largest collection of antique and modern paperweights in America. (The Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin houses the largest museum collection in the world dedicated to paperweights). About 700 objects are on display, but Magaro says about 4,000 are on the premises.
While paper dates from the Egyptian era over 4,000 years ago and glassmaking artistry is 3,500 years old, paperweights date only from 1845 with Venetian glassmakers in Murano, Italy. The most spectacular examples of this art, though, came from France during paperweights’ brief heyday from the 1850s to the 1890s.
The Victorian era was a sentimental time when letter-writing became a fad. Paperweights were sold in stationery stores as an attractive accessory to desk sets. The finest such objects came from the French factories of Saint Louis, then Clichy and Baccarat. But, by 1860, their production fell off sharply.
American paperweight manufacturing was centered around Boston and New England. Since most glassmakers were European immigrants, American designs were imitative of European models. Art Elder, an authority on paperweights, says that what American designs lacked in originality, they made up for in ingenuity which collectors find more charming and desirable.
Once French production ceased, collecting, primarily by aristocracy and royalty, began. Queen Victoria and Queen Mary were collectors as was Napoleon III. You should ask Alexis about the connection between pansy paperweights and the Bonapartist movement.
Magaro led me on a historical tour of the main paperweight designs. The earliest examples contained a profile in bas-relief of a person to be commemorated. Then came the millefiori (meaning thousand flowers in Italian). Lampwork designs include sculpted flowers, animals or insects.
What I found fascinating is that the flowers, animals or insects are made of glass, so minutely crafted and at miniature scale that you’d swear they were the real thing trapped within the glass casingl.
Paperweights can range widely in price. Magaro said that, while the vast majority range from $500 to $5,000, prices can hit the $10,000 to $25,000 range for rare examples. However, one can find holiday designs on Selman’s website for $175 and some petite millefiori designs are a steal at only $26.
Value is determined by a number of factors: the maker (French are generally the most valuable), symmetry and centering of the design, no internal flaws such as bubbles or cracks, size (the larger the better) and visual impact or the “wow” factor.
L.H. Selman is a full-service gallery. It buys and sells paperweights, handles sales on consignments for collectors and conducts sales auctions twice a year. It enjoys an international reputation.
Mere words can’t do justice to the visual delight and pleasure of holding one of these creations in your hand. You still have more than a week to sample this holiday treat. And maybe even get that last-minute holiday gift. You owe it to yourself to discover what Elder calls “one of the world’s best-kept secrets”.
L.H. Selman Ltd. is in Room 207 at 410 South Michigan Avenue. Phone is 312.583.1177. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and by appointment on weekends. Its website, www.selman.com features a lot of interesting information and photos, of course.