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Ephemera collectors find value in gummed lithographs

In response to a subscriber’s inquiry about items he thought might be used for decorating cakes, Dr. Anthony Cavo offers an interesting lesson about die-cut lithographs, in a recent installment of Ask the Experts.

QI am not sure if I’m writing to the right department. I wonder if you could give us a hand with our family heritage collection. For some time we have got unusual cake decoration materials that our great grandfather brought from Vienna around 100 years ago. According to size, they are very tiny. Please find enclosed a scan that gives you an indication what sort of material it is. Some of them have manufacture labels marked as “L & B,” which I believe is the manufacturer symbol. Will you be so kind and have a moment to look at it and let me know what it is please.
— D.D., via email


A What you have are decorations, but not for cakes. These beautiful little decorations are actually called die-cuts, and each one is a tiny colored lithograph and so, a little piece of art. These die-cuts were printed in large sheets with each die-cut connected to those around it by a small strip of paper, and sold as such to distributors where they were separated and sold to the public. You could buy one or more from the same sheet or select different die-cuts from other sheets; the backs were typically gummed for pasting. They were used as embellishments on stationery, cards, envelopes, autograph albums, on the flyleaf of books and even small trunks and trinket boxes. They were, however, used mostly to adorn the pages of the family scrapbook, which almost every Victorian family compiled.

Scrapbooking was an important part of Victorian life and included all types of clippings from periodicals, fashion books, letters, brochures, ticket stubs, greeting cards, business cards, photographs, drawings, bits of cloth from important clothing, dried flowers and die-cuts; some scrapbooks contained only die-cuts. Popular themes included Christmas, Valentines, flowers, domestic and wild animals, and angels.

The earliest die-cuts were hand-colored etchings, but with the improvements in lithography they were printed in bright colors, usually embossed, and often very glossy. Die-cuts were printed in the United States, England and Germany; your examples were printed in Berlin, Germany, by Littauer & Boysen during the late 19th century. L&B, owned by two Jewish businessmen, was in business from 1882 until 1936, when the company began to fail as a result of the anti-Semitic government. One owner committed suicide and the other died in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp, in 1942.

Your sheets contain cottages, country scenes, bluebirds, flowers, Santa Claus and what appears to be a bearded religious figure. The best, by far, are the full-figure Santas toting their sacks. Altogether, your collection might bring $450 to $500 at a good ephemera auction.

About our columnist:
Dr. Anthony J. Cavo is an honors graduate of the Asheford Institute Of Antiques and a graduate of Reisch College of Auctioneering. He has extensive experience in the field of buying and selling antiques and collectibles; at age 18, he became one of the youngest purchasers and consigners of antiques and art for a New York auction house. Mr. Cavo is an active dealer in the antiques and collectibles marketplace in the U.S. and abroad.

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