The Crown Jewels

The Crown Jewels -- Glass Paperweights

By Art Elder

Baccarat camomile and buds with millifiore garland, c, 1850          Clichy faceted millifiori mushroom, c. 1850

“The Crown Jewels for Collectors” — that’s what Paul Hollister wrote about fine glass paperweights.  He was one of the foremost scholars of 17th to 19th century glass studies, glass paperweights, and contemporary studio art glass.  Paperweights are considered the most collectable of 19th century glass items, and also the most challenging of the glass arts to make.  Fine glass paperweights are, indeed, rare treasures.

Most antique paperweights of quality were made by one of three French factories, as a sideline, for just 10-15 years in the mid-1800s.  It’s estimated that only about 25,000-30,000 remain today, with many tightly held in museum collections.  Fine contemporary paperweights are made by a limited number of studio artists and are sold either by the artist, or by a small group of specialty dealers.


The mid-to-late 1800s were sentimental and romantic times, heralded by an emerging middle class, resulting from the matured Industrial Revolution.  Letter writing became a fad, and paperweights were sold in stationery stores as an attractive accessory to desk-sets of pens, inkwells, blotters, and fine stationery.  The first glass paperweight was made in 1845 by Venetian glassmakers in response to the letter-writing fad.  They could have been made 300 years earlier because the techniques were known, but paper was then a rare commodity and there was no need for a paperweight.  They are the perfect example of form following function.

Venetian Scramble by Pietro Bagaglia, Murano, c 1845

 The finest were made by the French factories of Baccarat, Clichy, and Saint Louis for only 10-15 years.  By 1855-1860, their production in France sharply fell off as the factories moved on to produce other objects.

Baccarat close packed millifiori, signed/dated B1846 Clichy C-scroll millifiori garland, c. 1850 Saint Louis 3-Flower bouquet, c.1850

American made paperweights followed from 1851 into the late1880s, by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, and the New England Glass Company — and more rarely by makers including Dorflinger, Mount Washington, Gillinder, and Whithall Tatum companies. Their glassmakers were mainly European immigrants already skilled in the craft, which explains why American weights are somewhat imitative of the European.  What American weights may have lacked in quality, they more than made up for in creativity and ingenuity, which makes them even more charming to their collectors.

New England Glass Company, Nosegay on smoky green ground, c.1860  Gillinder millifiori carpet ground, c. 1865

Paperweights were also made in limited numbers in the late 19th century by Bohemian glassworks (mostly unnamed) and more rarely by the Belgians (Val St. Lambert, Saint Mande), the English (Bacchus), and a very few by the Russians. 

Most 19th century paperweights were made in factories where glassmakers were unfortunately not identified.

After 1890, very few quality paperweights were made until the 1950s when the art was revived by Paul Ysart in Scotland and Charles Kazian in the USA.  The techniques had to be re-learned as they were considered a trade secret by the old glassmakers.

 After the revival of paperweights in the 1950s, factory production began in Scotland by the Vassart, Strathern, Caithness, and Perthshire factories; and in England by Whitefriars.  Production quickly spread to the USA to a number of studio artists that now number over 30, who are actively creating fine paperweights.  Fine contemporary paperweights are also being crafted by studio artists in Canada, England, Scotland, France, Japan, and New Zealand.

Contemporary Artists (2018)
Contemporary Artists (2018)
Contemporary individual artists have mastered the craft and taken it to new heights, unknown to the original masters.  Today’s paperweights by these artists are exceptionally well-crafted, creative, and beautiful examples of fine glass art.  To make a precise paperweight requires the artist to have complete control over the glass.  Most artists work alone in small studios, where their creative talents allow them to design infinite, interesting, and innovative creations.  Many contemporary glass artists, although having the technical skills to reproduce a design faithfully, will frequently produce very limited editions of from one to five weights of a single design.

Large numbers of simple paperweights are mass-produced in China, Italy, and other locations.  These are often found in gift shops and eBay auctions, but are not considered collectible by discerning collectors.

Paperweight Types

There are three basic types of paperweights.  The first, termed sulphides, are commemorative objects, featuring encased molded ceramic plaques of a person’s profile, in bas-relief.

Clichy sulphide of Queen Victoria, c, 1850

These were followed by the millefiori (Italian, meaning thousand flowers) featuring encased sliced colorful glass canes set in geometric patterns.  Millefiori has been known for almost 2,000 years, but it was previously used as jewelry, or to decorate glass plates and vessels.
Lampwork (recently termed flamework) uses a fine torch to sculpt from colored glass, lifelike flowers, or animals/insects, which are then encased.  These became very popular because of the Victorian “language of flowers” in which flowers were used to convey messages.  Contemporary paperweight artists are crafting realistic objects of floral bouquets, insects, or animals that are often mistaken for being real.
Baccarat double clematis with millifiori, c. 1850


Paperweight Collecting

Fine glass paperweights originally were used functionally to hold down paper, but collectors now consider them as collectible glass art objects and value them for their beauty, creativity, and rarity. 

Collecting paperweights began shortly after their production ceased, primarily by aristocracy and royalty.  It is impressive that these very privileged individuals chose to collect paperweights, which were relatively inexpensive at the time.  They must have recognized the beauty and sentimentality of these well-designed and well-crafted objects.

Collecting paperweights became more common in the early 20th century, when some outstanding collections were formed.  They were recognized as a legitimate form of the decorative arts in 1925, when Sotheby’s conducted the first major auction of paperweights.  The number of collectors increased markedly after 1953, when the Paperweight Collectors Association was formed.  The international Paperweight Collectors Association hosts biennial conventions, bringing together collectors, artists, and dealers.  Additionally, 19 regional collectors’ organizations provide social, educational, and buying opportunities for collectors in local areas across the USA.

Because they are rare, fine paperweights are unknown to the general public.  When first introduced, there is a universal attraction and almost magical fascination with them.  Most novice viewers are astounded by their beauty and extreme precision.  Some people actually become speechless.  Others cannot believe an encased glass floral bouquet is not real.

Famous Collections in Museums

Amory Houghton built an outstanding collection over a 50-year span, beginning in the early 1930s.  Houghton was chairman emeritus of Corning Glass Works.  He spent his life in the glass industry, yet with an exposure to the many different forms of glass art, he chose to collect paperweights.  The Houghton Collection of 288 weights forms the nucleus of the paperweight collection at the Corning Museum of Glass, which has grown through gifts and bequests.

Evangeline Bergstrom, the wife of a wealthy paper manufacturer, collected about 700 weights from 1935 to 1944.  Her collection formed the nucleus of the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum, in Neenah, Wis., which opened in 1959.  Its collection has now grown to more than 2,200 paperweights through donations, bequests, and acquisitions.

Arthur Rubloff, the developer of the Miracle Mile in Chicago, was introduced to paperweights in the early 1950s and proceeded to build one of the world’s greatest collections.  He was known to buy only the very best quality available, and price was not a concern.  In 1978, he donated 1,472 weights from his collection to the Art Institute of Chicago.

These exceptional collectors through the years usually had two things in common: first, a true passion for collecting and second, and the privilege of having sufficient financial resources to build extensive collections.  A privileged life is not necessary to enjoy a collection, however.  A collector with modest means may enjoy their collection as much as a wealthy person does.  The only differences are usually the rarity and the number of weights in the collections.

Smaller, regional museums also exhibit paperweights, including the Fuller Collection at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., the Wheeler Collection at Smith College in Northampton, MA, and the Smith Collection at the Forsyth Center Galleries at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Judging Value

Judging value of these rare and unusual objects is a complex issue.  The primary factors influencing the value of antique paperweights include the following:

  • Maker (French are generally the most valuable)
  • Rarity of the design (the more rare the design, the more valuable)
  • Symmetry and centering of the design (the more symmetrical, the more valuable)
  • Internal flaws such as bubbles, tilted canes, or striations (fewer flaws are more valuable)
  • Size (most vary from about 2½ inches to 3¼ inches diameter – the larger the better — exceptions are miniatures, which are 2 inches or smaller in diameter)
  • Condition of the exterior (the less restoration and scratches/chips the better)
  • Overall visual impact (or the “wow” factor)
  • Provenance (only an issue if it is from one of the few historic collections)

 Perceived value is always a trade-off of all these eight factors.  They are important to collectors, who, as individuals, may value one factor above others.  Because paperweights were all handmade, there are usually variations in each of them, which affect the value.

Antique weights with most common designs – an example may be a single pansy by Baccarat – may sell for anywhere from $500 to $1,500, depending upon the quality.  If it has poor symmetry, some minor flaws and other condition issues, it might sell at the lower price, or even less.  If it is pristine and has a garland of millefiori canes, or perhaps, a muslin ground, it might sell at the upper value, or more.  The more rare and appealing designs might easily sell for $3,000-$5,000; the extremely rare weights without flaws could sell for $10,000 or more.  The world-record price was set in a 1990 auction by Sotheby’s when a unique antique millefiori basket by Clichy sold for just over $250,000.

The cost of contemporary weights also depends upon the same judgement factors as the antique weights.  They are usually less expensive than antiques.  Well-made factory weights by Perthshire or others can be bought for $200-$400.  Well-made weights by studio artists will cost $500-$900.  Top name studio artists weights will cost $900-$2,500, with exceptional examples costing $5,000- $7,500.  Some very exceptional examples may sell for $10,000 or more.

Paperweights have an enthusiastic following by collectors who appreciate their rarity, beauty, precision, sentimentality, and interesting history.  Have a look — see what they’re enjoying, and join the fun!

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