Kya deLongchamps believes browsing through smaller collectables can bring its own rewards.
I had an exciting wee find last week. Nothing screamingly valuable, but a fascinating and perfect Georgian thing. It was winking at the back of a cabinet in Bygone Times in Dungarvan, a feast of unusual, unfussy and affordable antiques and collectables by Caroline and Damian O’Malley.
A small golden face lifted into three dimensions by an egg sized chunk of cut glass, the portrait was submerged in a pleasing crystal concave- rather like those Connemara worry stones we massaged on our school-desks in the 1970s. I paid €15 for it as my innards told me this wasn’t just a pretty little nothing. I did at least know it was a ‘salt’ for a dining table.
At home, having removed the vanity contact lenses (through which I see dimly) I slid my nose over it in a myopic watchmakers examination under a lamp. The piece was not as I had thought reverse-painted with the little 18th century powdered wigged lady of quality. Instead, there was a flat glass disk set on the back of the salt on to which the searing golden image was painted.
A good friend, Prof Anne Marie D’Arcy of the University of Leicester who made her way through TCD as a runner for top antique dealers in Dublin, took one look at the pictures I sent to her online. Without hesitation she rapped back “Bohemian Zwischengoldglas — the Biedermier shape is anachronistic, but that’s what it is — well done”. Now, I wasn’t about to fall about with head wagging lies of ‘of course, of course, of course’ as her knowledge is flint-hard, encyclopaedic and her eyes those of an immortal eagle. She even found a collection of eight very similar salts that has sold at Bonhams auction house in London in 2007 for £450 (I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed — the first class trip to Venice was almost booked).
Still, dating to somewhere between 1780 and 1800 based on its quality, it’s a fascinating little object d’art, that would have been filled with salt from the ‘standing salt’, which never moved, and then be fired down the table to the individual diner. Translated as ‘gold between glass’, Zwischengoldglas vessels were made in Bohemia and Austria in the 1700s reviving an ancient fused glass technique known to the Romans.
With its real gold leaf inclusions and multiple reflections, my dainty aristocrat must have shone like a fistful of bullion in the candlelight. I could see a crusty 18th century nail shadowed by a lacy sleeve pinching up the precious damp salt that made the hideous food served in even rich homes palatable.
Open salts or salt ‘dips’ in metal, glass, ceramic and wood such as my little gem are a fertile area of collecting and are known since ancient times. If you have little room, but time to look wherever you go, there’s every chance of picking up 19th century salt cellars at boot sales, auction and online for €30 to €100.
Closed salt shakers really took off in the second decade of the 20th century. Previous to this, small dishes of salt, some open, some with hinged lids were a measure of status in great households, and the closer you sat to the master salt, the more tastefully elevated you were presumed to be. Passing the salt from a large master salt was superseded by the use of ‘trencher’ salts which sat close to the individual guest, some carrying dedicated little spoons.
Pressed glass salts were especially popular and affordable for everyday, with solid and plated silver salts a greater indulgence with their glass liner to prevent the corrosive salt spoiling or oxidising silver. Victorian salts with a nice cut glass finish are easy to find and make for a lovely shiny collection in a cabinet and for use on high days and holidays with scrupulously clean fingers.
If you do use your antique salts on the table, when finished with them always empty and then clean them in that order. Store silver pieces in a zippy plastic bag to prevent tarnishing. Most collectors have an area of salt types they favour and collecting character shakers made worldwide from the 1920s forward is a spicy alternative for a more modern palette.
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