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5 Expert Insights: Quality Workmanship

Webb Gem Cameo Glass Four-layer Decorated Vase

Webb Gem Cameo Glass Four-layer Decorated Vase, Auctioned for $35,250

Quality. This one word can make the difference between a value in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars when it comes to art and antiques. Advice like “buy high-quality” or “quality never loses value” floats around the antiques business, but what does quality really mean?

Most would agree that where fine collectibles are concerned, quality denotes at least one of the following: superior workmanship, exceptional materials, or extra details. Of course these traits will differ depending on whom you talk to and what you’re talking about. What constitutes quality in jewelry will naturally differ from the characteristics that determine quality for furniture, musical instruments, paintings, or other collectibles.

In a series of three posts, Skinner experts and appraisers will offer insight into what “quality” means in their specialty areas, beginning with thoughts on quality workmanship.

1. Glass: Look for Complexity

A more complex glass-making process usually increases the value of a given piece, especially when it’s done by hand and involves a tremendous amount of work. In cameo glass, you might have two or three layers of different colored glass that a craftsman hand-cut down to make a design. If the finished work comes out without bubbles or bursts, that demonstrates excellent workmanship and it’s most likely a high-quality piece. Jane Prentiss, Director of 20th Century Design

2. Jewelry: Backlight the Gem

A really fine piece of jewelry will be as beautiful on the back side as the front. Sometimes you look at a piece of jewelry and it’s just sparkling beautiful, then you turn it over and  the cut-outs in the back are kind of crude or the metal is thickly cut; it’s not finely done. To judge the quality of a colored gem, all you need is a little flashlight–backlight it and you will see everything. Sometimes things you don’t want to see! Gloria Lieberman, Vice President

Italian Violin Pietro Guarneri Venice 1734

Italian Violin, Pietro Guarneri, Venice, 1734, Auctioned for $165,900

3. Violins: It’s in the Varnish

Varnish is the most important thing. You can have a violin with poor or even very rough woodworking, but if it has a good varnish, it could still be very valuable. Getting a violin to the stage where it’s “in-the-white,” in other words, all carved, assembled, sanded, and scraped down beautifully, is just the beginning. At this point it’s just a blank canvas for the varnish, which is the most difficult part. That’s why Stradivari was simply the greatest, because he not only had the best sound, workmanship, beauty and innovative design, but his varnish is stunning. It makes the wood almost appear like it’s gold. – David Bonsey, Director of Fine Musical Instruments

4. Ceramics: Period Matters

Many of the pieces are made in molds, so the quality is very consistent. When you talk about something like Wedgwood, the earliest Wedgwood will tend to be the best quality. As you get to the more mass-produced period of the latter 19th century, someone might say “I need 200 of these done today,” and so quality suffered. In the 18th century it wasn’t like that. The craftsmen did the best they could until they finished, and only then did they begin the next one. Stuart Slavid, Director of European Furniture & Decorative Arts

5. Paintings: It’s in the Eye of the Beholder

It’s hard to say what quality workmanship is in a painting, especially in the case of the 20th and 21st century where it’s just about impossible to instantly say, “Oh yes, that is good.” With representational art, you can talk about, say, proportions and depiction of space, but even in such instances the artist may intentionally choose not to depict accurate perspective and dimensionality. Many impressionistic works are great examples because the artists were thinking about Chinese art and Chinese woodblock prints. Basically, talking about quality is a lot more subjective for paintings. Robin Starr, Director of American & European Paintings & Prints

What characteristics denote quality workmanship in your business or collecting area?

In upcoming posts, we’ll look into quality materials and extra details that characterize exceptional antiques.

5 thoughts on “5 Expert Insights: Quality Workmanship

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