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Appraisals: Vintage thermoses have cool Mid-Century design

In his most recent Ask the Experts appraisal column, Dr. Anthony Cavo evaluates a pair of vintage thermoses and an ethnographic figure for Antique Trader subscribers.

Appraisals by Dr. Anthony J. Cavo

Appraisal: Vintage thermoses prove valuable

Vintage thermos

Vintage thermos

Q We enjoy your articles in Antique Trader. Enclosed are pictures of two Henry Dreyfus square thermoses. The small red and black is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum and rumored to possibly have been aboard the Wright Bros. first flight. They are dated in the 1930s. The black and red thermos is 9.75” tall by 3.25” wide and the brown and yellow thermos is 13.75” tall by 4” wide. We have seen some values on the small red and black one, but nothing on the larger brown and yellow. We are very curious about the value and history of both thermoses.

We appreciate any information you might be able to share with us.

Thank you.

 — S.N., Zeeland, Michigan

A Thank you, I’m happy to hear you enjoy the articles; I enjoy writing them and feedback is always welcome.

Vintage Thermos markings

Vintage Thermos markings

You certainly have a stunning pair of Henry Dreyfuss thermoses. Yes, you are correct, the small red and black thermos was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I am fortunate enough to be able to visit very often) during their show: American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age. In fact, a match to your thermos was also included in the book of the same name, which is available at many online sites including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Abe Books. You may want a copy since it illustrates your piece. Here in New York City the Brooklyn Museum and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum also have displays featuring everyday objects made better and more beautiful by Henry Dreyfuss.

Henry Dreyfuss, an American Industrial Designer of consumer and commercial products, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. (yeah, Brooklyn) in 1904. Henry had an affiliation of more than thirty years with Western Electric and Bell Telephone for whom he designed a variety of consumer objects including, but certainly not limited to, clocks and telephones. He was a proponent of and contributed largely to the implementation of ergonomic design.

Vintage thermos

Vintage thermos

In addition to writing a number of books, Dreyfuss also designed vacuum cleaners, railroad locomotives and passenger cars, tractors, fountain pens, typewriters, steamships, thermostats, buildings, cameras and even Democracity for the 1939 World’s Fair. In fact, he, along with Emery Roth & Sons, designed the Bankers Trust Building at 280 Park Avenue in Manhattan. (Manhattan’s okay, Brooklyn is better.)

During his later years Henry became overwhelmed with grief over his wife’s terminal illness and in 1972, sadly, they took their own lives by carbon monoxide poisoning in their garage. It is difficult to segue from such a somber fact into a discussion of one of Henry’s designs, but that is the purpose of this appraisal.

The colors on your red and black thermos, made by The American Bottle Company, are evocative of a harlequin, a motif and colors that were quite popular during the 1930s. The thermos is composed of plastic, metal, glass, paint and cork and combines the contrasting forms of flat planes with rounded forms. The red and black thermos, made around 1933, is, I believe, Model #370. It is quite difficult to find and originally came with four nesting Catalin (thermal resistant plastic) cups. I have seen this thermos in not nearly as clean condition as yours offered in the $1,200 to $1,600 range. I would easily place your red and black thermos at the upper end of that range – if not a bit higher.

Vintage thermos

Vintage "harlequin" thermos

Your brown and yellow thermos, which is actually more of a maroon and tan, is a rarity. This thermos also came with four nesting cups, one dark and three ivory, all of which you have. A search of auction, gallery, and online venues show that this particular design has rarely been offered for sale and at prices not disclosed to the public.

I would say that in a competitive modern design auction, this piece might easily bring upwards of $2,500 and I wouldn’t be surprised (and a lot of folks in the trade may call me crazy) if, because it appears to be in such wonderful condition and has all four cups, it bought closer to $4,000 or more.

Thank you for allowing me to evaluate your pieces and for sharing these brilliant examples of iconic American design with our readers.

Appraisal: Carved figure needs further research

Mysterious carved figure

carved figure

QI purchased a lot of hand carved wooden items at an estate sale and this was one item that I can’t find anything on. Hoping for region and so forth. The wood has cracked at the back and some paint has worn off.

M. & N.

A The form is suggestive of a Songye Power Figure.

The Songye people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are an ethnic Bantu tribe that have achieved renown for their wood carvings of ceremonial figures and masks and especially their power figures. Your carved figure has many characteristics suggestive of such an origin, however, the carving doesn’t appear as fine as most Songye figures.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t Songye, it well may be. The proportions seem correct but the features seem crude.

Unlike furniture, which has many telltale signs of age that can be photographed, it is difficult to determine the age of this figure from these photographs. Wood takes about one to two years to dry and as it dries it shrinks, but it does not shrink uniformly. Radial shrinkage (the distance between growth rings) occurs twice as fast as tangential (side-to-side) shrinkage, and so wood cracks. Cracks, therefore, indicate that the wood has dried – it doesn’t tell us when the wood dried.

Mysterious carved figure

carved figure

Although there is some controversy among wood-carvers regarding the use of dry or wet wood for carving the consensus seems to be to use dry for carving to decrease the risk of cracking. Wood that is not entirely dry can crack or even change shape. Wet carving can be done if the carver is able to control the moisture content of the wood. In any case, carvers in Africa typically allow the wood to dry before carving figures to prevent cracking.

Another fact that is not discernible from the photographs is the type and density of wood used in your carving, and the type of wood used in your figure may be the most important clue. The types of wood used mostly for carving figures in Africa are dense: teak, ebony, mango, and mahogany.

Knowing the height and weight of your piece might have added some insight but there is nothing like a hands-on examination for such an item.

The antiques market is flooded with reproductions and forged “African” art and although I do have a small African art collection, I am not an expert. That being said, I feel uneasy about the form and patina as well as the absence of the finesse typically seen in these pieces. I would like to refer you to someone in your area but I am not sure where you live. You may want to have it examined in person. Research museums in your area that specialize in ethnographic and tribal artworks.

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