How should I start to build a glassware collection?
Buy a book or two. A small investment in books can save you money in the long run, help you make up your mind what sort of collection you want, and help you spot the odd bargain, too! There are plenty of glass books available (see some books on glass), from those for the beginner collector, to some which are extremely specialised for the expert. For an excellent overview of the subject for the beginner, we would recommend 'Antique Glass' (from the 'Starting To Collect' series) by John Sandon (published in 1999 by The Antique Collector's Club, ISBN 1-85149-286-0, price £12.50, and reprinted in 2003 in a larger format, ISBN 1-85149-452-9, at the same price)
Visit museums, galleries & antique fairs. Getting 'up close and personal' is far better than just looking at photographs, and will help you decide what interests you most (see links & useful addresses for some suggestions)
Buy your pieces from a specialist dealer. Until you are fairly confident that you know what you are doing, we would recommend that you only buy your pieces from a specialist glass dealer. I can hear you saying 'Well, they WOULD say that!', but there are two main reasons for doing so:
(a) Although you may be lucky enough to pick up a bargain from a general antique dealer, you are just as likely to pay way over the market price. A specialist glass dealer will know what is a reasonable price in the current market, and will try to keep his prices at that level, or less - because he wants to sell! General antique dealers often take a complete 'flyer' at fixing a price for a piece, tend to be overly impressed by signatures, and rely heavily on 'price guides' (see 'Beware of price guides!' below for our views on that subject)
As an example, at a recent fair we found a piece of Schneider and a piece of Daum (both signed, each from a different general dealer). The small Schneider piece was worth about £120 to a collector, so we were hoping to pay no more than about £80 - the dealer was asking £320! The Daum piece was a not-very-inspiring piece of acid-etched clear glass, with both scratching and water-staining to the interior, and some chips to the rim. Due to its poor condition, we would probably not have bought it, anyway, but even in good condition it would have been worth around £200 or so. What was the dealer's price? A staggering £360!
(b) A specialist dealer's reputation is important to him, because he relies heavily on repeat customers. Because of this, it is very unlikely that he will overcharge you, or sell you something that is not as described, or that is damaged or has been restored (unless he states this 'up front' and lowers the price accordingly). A general dealer may not even recognise that a piece has been 'tidied up' or even cut down to disguise damage
Beware of price guides! Prices quoted in books are so variable as to be almost meaningless, and tend to be unrealistically high. The simple reason for this is that most authors are usually either a collector with an already completed collection, or a dealer who wants to be able to ask more from his customers, and both have a vested interest in keeping prices up. Also, many price guides do not give an indication of the size of the piece illustrated. Without this, the valuation is worthless, as manufacturers will often produce an identical design in a range of different sizes. This is often why general dealers will ask a silly price, because they do not realise the piece illustrated in the book is ten times bigger than the piece they have on their stall!
Try to buy fewer, better pieces. When starting a collection (and we've all done it!) the temptation is to buy lots of small, insignificant pieces for very low prices. The fact is that glassmakers manufacture vastly more small, low-priced pieces because they are their 'bread and butter' lines that sell to people wanting a memento of a holiday, or a gift for someone when they get home. There will almost certainly come a time when you regret a lot of these purchases, and wish you had saved up and bought one really special piece instead of the ten average bits you have ended up with!
Be wary of dirty glassware. The following is an extract from the cleaning & restoring glass section of 'glass notes', but the advice is worth repeating here:
'Don't be put off from considering a piece of glass by the fact that it is very dirty, but do be aware that you are taking a risk by buying a dirty piece, and the price you are being asked by the seller should, therefore, reflect that
Dirt can cover up a multitude of sins, so dirty objects must be scrutinised for damage even more carefully than you would check clean ones. Chips can be obscured, small holes be filled in, worn enamelling and gilding covered, stains disguised, and even cracks hidden under a thick enough layer of 'crud'
Wet pieces should also be avoided unless you have the wherewithal to dry them on the spot, as water will effectively cover water-damage and even quite severe scratching, and make small chips hard to spot. On our rounds, we often see wet decanters on offer, and I bet that most of them would prove to be badly water-stained when dried
Some (unscrupulous) sellers will even resort to wiping the inside of vases etc. with vaseline, grease or oil in order to cover up water damage, so be prepared to stick your fingers in as far as you can to check for any oiliness'
Why do you not provide valuations?
We are always happy to help with the identification of pieces where we can, but it is our policy not to provide valuations under any circumstances (nor do we quote the prices of pieces we have sold in the past)
The reason that we do not get involved in valuations (or quote any prices in our 'photo library') is that there is no such thing as a 'right price', particularly when it comes to glass. Our opinion of price guides is detailed above in Beware of price guides!, and even prices realised at auction (which tend to be a better indicator of value) can fluctuate wildly from year to year, both upward and downward - according to whatever is in or out of fashion, and who happens to be at the sale
If you are buying a piece of glass (or anything else), it is worth whatever you are prepared to pay for it at the time. If you are selling a piece, it is worth whatever you are prepared to take for it. And in general, somewhere between the price a seller is asking, and the amount a buyer would like to pay, there is usually a figure they can both agree upon
If you should need to establish the value of a piece for, say, insurance purposes, the best thing is to take it to any reputable auction-house, who will, in our experience, be happy to give you their estimate of its current market value
Is it OK to buy damaged pieces?
Sometimes, yes. Collectors of pottery, porcelain and china will accept stained, crackled, cracked, chipped, repaired and even restored pieces for their collections, provided only that the price reflects the condition. For some reason that we have never understood, glass collectors are very much harder to please, and usually insist on pieces being in immaculate condition. There are two things to consider:
Age. In our view, the more recently the piece was made, the less damage you should accept. Anything made after World War II should be in really excellent condition. With early 20th Century pieces, the odd scratch or small chip may be acceptable, or even a little minor water-staining (all of these can be ground or polished out by a good restorer if required, although we would not necessarily recommend this. For a list of some UK glass repairers and restorers, see links & useful addresses)
With 19th Century pieces and earlier, some sort of damage is almost inevitable, and more serious damage (larger chips, small bruises, re-ground rims*, missing sections of trailing etc) may be acceptable. For anything but the very rarest pieces, however, you should always avoid anything with a crack in. The question is: are you prepared to wait for ages to find a perfect specimen (and maybe never find one!), or can you live with one that is a little less than perfect (for which you have paid an appropriately reduced price)?
* Note: A quick tip for the beginner; if a hand-blown vessel has a pontil-mark on the base (see glossary, N-Z for definition), whether rough or polished out, the rim would originally have been sheared off and then re-heated, giving a smooth, rounded edge. If the rim of the vessel has been flat-ground, it has almost certainly been done later to cover damage
Rarity. Still more important, even overriding age considerations. Most glass collections in major museums, for example, contain ancient pieces that have been painstakingly reconstructed from hundreds of shattered pieces, because perfect examples are next to impossible to find. If the missing piece from your collection is very rare, wouldn't you rather have a damaged example than none at all?
How can I be sure whether a piece is pressed or cut glass?
The simplest way to tell pressed from cut glass is to look for the slightly-raised seams left by the metal moulds. These will normally be vertical, and there will be at least two or three, evenly spaced around the piece (the metal moulds are made in two or three sections, which are hinged together, so that the completed piece can be released from the mould once it has cooled)
If the glass has been cut, close examination (a powerful magnifying-glass will help) will show grinding-marks (tiny parallel striations) left by the cutting-wheel on the cut surfaces. In the 19th Century and before, the cut glass was polished by using cork wheels, which left the edges of the cuts crisp and still fairly sharp to the touch. After about 1900, the whole piece would be dipped in hydrofluoric acid to polish it. While this tends to smooth off the edges of the cut, you can usually still detect the grinding-marks
The corners of the imitation 'cuts' on pressed items are never very crisp, and become more and more rounded as the mould becomes worn. Sometimes on pressed 'cut' pieces, you can even find patterns of 'cutting' that would be physically impossible to achieve with grinding-wheels
With a cut, hand-blown piece, a handle (if there is one) will always have been separately applied. While some early pressed glass (1850s to 1860s approximately) may also have an applied handle, most pressed peces will have a handle produced in the mould (and which will, therefore, have a seam on its inside and outside)
Why is lead crystal better than ordinary glass?
It isn't! Lead oxide has been added to glass since before the 11th Century to improve the clarity, and in 1676 it was found to prevent 'crisselling' (see glossary, A-E for definition). It also makes the glass heavier and more robust, and better for cutting, although it is not as easy to manipulate as soda glass when hot, as it cools rapidly. 'Lead crystal' is a modern marketing term, used to indicate glass containing a particularly high proportion (about 25 to 30%) of lead oxide. This does not make it any 'better' than any other glass, although many people seem to believe it is!