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posted: 2/3/2013 5:51 AM

Cut glass etched a place in American history

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  • Cut crystal from the early 1900s.

    Cut crystal from the early 1900s.
    SHNS photo courtesy of Helaine Fendelman and Joe R

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. I have two pieces of cut crystal that were given to my grandparents as wedding presents in the early 1900s. I have enclosed some photographs. One is a cheese or butter dish with a bell-shaped cover. It is about 9 inches high and sits on an under plate 9 inches in diameter. The other piece is a pitcher that is about 11 inches tall. I am interested to know the value and if there is a market for them.

A. Cut glass has been around for a very long time. It can be traced back to the eighth century B.C., but more than 2,500 years later, in the late 19th century (post-1880), American craftsmen came up with the ultimate in cut-glass design -- the so-called "American Brilliant" style.

It was meant to sparkle like a faceted jewel, and became "The Gift" for brides and wives for weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Many women who could afford it acquired at least a cabinet full -- and it was often displayed in the dining room with pride.

There were actually three periods of American cut glass that interest modern collectors. The first was in vogue from about 1770 to 1830 and was characterized by engravings of swags, birds, flowers, stars featured with simple flute cuts, and more.

The next period -- American Middle -- lasted from around 1830 to 1880. Pieces from this period featured simple, broad panels of flute cuts. The best of these pieces were engraved with intricate patterns more sophisticated than the decorations found on first-period American cut glass.

In the third, the American Brilliant period, thick, heavy, high-quality lead glass was cut intricately and deeply with geometric patterns, such as hobstars, fans and notched prisms. All of this prismatic decoration was done by hand using a rotating wheel of iron, copper or stone.

Our reader has two examples of American Brilliant cut glass -- one is indeed a cheese dome or cheese keeper, while the other is a tankard pitcher. She should check the surface of these two pieces carefully for signatures, because finding one would enhance the value of her two pieces considerably.

American Brilliant cut glass was signed by dipping a stamp into hydrofluoric acid and then applying it to the piece of glass -- generally in a blank space on the bottom or underneath the handle (there are exceptions). These signatures are generally faint and hard to see, but sometimes huffing your breath on an area can make the signature pop out -- and carefully rotating the piece in bright light can also help.

It is unfortunate that American Brilliant cut glass is out of fashion and values have fallen dramatically from their high point eight to 10 years ago. Still, H.K.'s cheese dome should be insured in the $500-$600 range, and her tankard piece should be valued for a little less, at around $250-$350. But if a signature should appear after more careful examination, those prices would go up -- at least a bit.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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