A mystery bust and things that go boom

By Terry Maurer, What's it Worth July 1, 2012 

In today's pre-holiday edition of What's It Worth?, we try to unravel a bit of the mystery involving a small statue and have a bang-up time talking about collectible firecracker labels.

Q. We have this 17-inch sculpture we call Alice . My husband tells me he remembers her standing on a pedestal in his mother's house while he was growing up in Pennsylvania. He believes that his mother acquired Alice from her mother.

She is extremely heavy and I have no idea what material she is made of. There are no markings of any kind, anywhere. A friend of mine insists she looks like Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Can you tell us anything about Alice? Any information would be more than we have now. -- Sharon in Richland

A. Alice is lovely, but she falls into a category of items that are extremely difficult to identify. We don't know exactly who she represents (if she represents anyone specific at all), can't say for certain where or even when she was made and have no idea who did the work. You can see the challenges.

We do know a few things. She dates to the time between 1880 and 1925. That's based on the age of family members who've known the statue all their lives.

We also can make some guesses on her age based on her collar and hair style. However, that can be tricky, as the artist might have been working much later than the popularity of those styles and was carving a piece reminiscent of an earlier era.

From the photos and description of the weight, she is most likely made of either marble or alabaster. The work is of high quality.

Many of these unmarked pieces were produced in France and Italy for import to America. Some were made in England, but those generally carry marks. They also were produced in America, both marked and unmarked.

If she were a representation of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), chances are this bust would have been titled. It would have been good marketing and boosted sales.

We compared Alice to pictures of Elizabeth and, frankly, couldn't see much resemblance at all.

In our research of auction records, many similar works were found, but nothing exactly like Alice. The range of values was consistent, however, between $400 and $600. Those are auction prices; she would be higher in an antiques shop or at a show.

Holiday collectible note:

Firecrackers, which are mostly illegal now, marked the Fourth of July for several centuries in America. They've been used in celebrations across the world for much longer than that.

Firecrackers originated in China about 1,000 years ago and have been used there -- and across Asia -- ever since.

Through most of the 20th century, firecrackers were sold at American roadside stands large and small, and much of their "sales pitch" came from the fancy paper labels on the packets. After all, except for size, firecrackers are all about the same and they all do the same thing: Go BOOM !

Hong Kong and neighboring Macao have been the primary manufacturing and export centers in modern times.

The "Golden Era" of firecracker label art dates from 1920 to the early 1950s. That's when patriotic, mythical and animal images dominated the packages. Devils and oriental gods were especially popular.

There were thousands of labels made, and values now range from a few dollars to upwards of $1,000.

Today, specialist collectors look high and low for colorful, graphic examples of vintage firecracker labels, like those shown here. Some are quite rare and command the highest prices.

-- Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by e-mail tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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