Month: January 2013

Bakelite and catalin: Collectible early plastics


vintage catalin radio

Bakelite and catalin are trade names for closely related antique plastics that are popularly collected today in the form of old timey radios (‘catalin radios’), colorful jewelry, toys and more. The following is an introduction to the plastics and an identification guide.

Bakelite and catalin are both made from phenol and formaldehyde, and are phenol formaldehyde resins. Because of this they have many of the same characteristics.  However, the two were made in different ways so also have distinct differences.

Bakelite was made by from 1907-27.  Bakelite used filler of cloth, paper, cotton and even sometimes asbestos. This meant the plastic was heavy, very strong, opaque and came in only dark colors. Bakelite usually came in only black and dark brown, and was used usually used for ‘utilitarian’ purposes, including pipe fittings, coffee pot handles, and electrical outlets.

antique coffee pot with a bakelite handle

antique coffee pot with a dark brown bakelite handle

When Bakelite’s patent ran out in 1927, the process was picked up by the American Catalin Company which called their version of the plastic catalin. The American Catalin Company used the same phenol formaldehyde chemicals, but made the plastic in is a different way. In particular no fillers were used. This meant that, unlike the dark and dreary Bakelite, catalin was often translucenct and made in a wide variety of bright colors and interesting designs, including a marble of different colors. Catalin was used for more fun, decorative and collectible items, including jewelry, toys, trinkets, decorated boxes, brightly colored radios. Catalin tended to shrink with age, which explains for the sometimes warped and shunken frames for catalin radios. Catalin was made from 1928 to about World War II.

antique catalin napkin holder

Antique catalin napkin holder.  Bright colors like this means it’s catalin not bakelite.

Collectors and dealers mixing up the names.

As they are such closely related plastics, collectors and dealers often get the names mixed up, calling catalin bakelite, and bakelite catalin. Most so called ‘bakelite jewelry’ on the market is actually catalin. Some sellers on eBay and elsewhere play it safe and call it ‘bakelite catalin.’

Happily, both plastics are vintage (1907-WWII), so if you know its one of the two but aren’t sure which, you can be at least confident the item is old. You can even use the catch all ‘phenol formaldehyde resin’ to cover them both, though that might not sound as romantic as sale.

antique catalin toy motorcycle

antique catalin toy motorcycle

Identification of bakelite and catalin

First I’ll show the tests to used to identify phenol formeldahyde– meaning both bakelite and catalin. As they are both made of the same chemicals, these test for both. Then, once something is identified as phenol formaldehyde, we’ll look at how to differentiate between the two.

Bakelite/catalin general appearance: Bakelite and catalin is heavy and clunky. It makes a distinct sound when two pieces are clinked against each other. Visually, there should be no seams or mold marks. There is no pure white in color, as the whites formed a yelllowish patina with time.

Bakelite/catalin hot water and rub test:  Hold the plastic under hot water for perhaps 15 seconds, then smell it. If it smells strongly like medicinal chemicals, then it likely is bakelite/catalin. Though it doesn’t work as well, you can rub the plastic with your them and sniff for the strong medicinal small.

Lucite, a plastic that can resemble bakelite/catalin has no smell under the hot water/rub test. ‘French bakelite,’ which is a mostly modern faux-bakelite, smells like burnt or sour milk.

Bakelite/catalin polish test: The common metal polisher called simichrome polish can help identify Bakelite. If you rub a q-tip with simichrome polish on bakelite or catalin, the polish on the q-tip will turn yellow. Simichrome polish is available at many hardware stores and online. The same test works with Dow Bathroom Cleaner or 409.


marble-style catalin radio

So, then, is it Bakelite or Catalin?

If you can determined an item is phenol formaldehyde, the next  question is is bakelite or catalin. If you know the date of the item, then it’s easy. Bakelite: 1907-1927. Catalin: 1928-1940s.  Bakelite only comes in dark colors, usually black or dark brown. Catalin can come in a wide variety of color colors, including bright colors and marbling. Bakelite is opaque, while catalin is often translucent (can often see this at the edges of an item). If the item is brightly colored jewelry or similar items, it is more than probably catalin.

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How to research a famous artist’s work before purchasing

salvador_dali_catalogue_raisonne_etchings_bookimagesFor those concerned about identification and authentication of famous original art, catalogues raisonne are invaluable information sources. Catalogues raisonne are large illustrated books used by major auction houses, museums and top dealers to help identify, date and authenticate prints. They are also a great starting point for the beginning collector, offering an illustrated survey and description of the artist’s work.
A catalogue raisonne is a book or series of books covering either the artist’s entire body of work or specific areas (paintings, sculpture, prints, area of prints). They are produced by the top experts in the field, including professors, gallery owners, museums curators and the artist’s publishers. Input and approval is often given by the artist or artist’s estate.

While catalogues raisonne vary in quality, a good one will be extensively illustrated and give most of the essentials of the artist’s original prints. These essentials can include dimensions of a print, type of printing used (etching, engraving, other), number of prints, editions, how a print is signed and numbered, the type of paper used, and so on. A catalogue often includes helpful biographical and artistic information, such as describing the printing techniques and styles. Some offer samples of the artist’s signature. Some catalogues are so lavishly illustrated, they are worth the price simply as coffee table books and can be enjoyed by non collectors.

The essentialness of a catalogue raisonne is that it shows what prints are recognized as genuine works by the artist. While there will be some legitimate uncatalogued prints, for the most part the collector should stick to what is catalogued. If a print for sale is not listed and detailed in a catalogue raisonne or called genuine by other substantive source (expert opinion, authoritative article), the collector should not buy.

If the least that collectors of the world did was to determine if a for sale print is listed as authentic in the catalogue raisonne and that the bare basics (size, signature, numbering, etc) matches the catalogue listing, the sale of forgeries and fakes would be reduced by about 95%.

Obtaining a particular artist’s catalogue can be difficult. While catalogues by some artist’s can be bought at popular bookstores, they are sometimes expensive. Some are extremely difficult to find. Luckily, a growing number of catalogues are online, including those of Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.

For the hard to find catalogues raisonne, the collector should look high and low. This includes looking at used bookstores, libraries and asking around. Some galleries or dealers have libraries and will let collectors reference them.

In an online-auction description, a good seller may tell the bidders that a print is officially “listed” as genuine, by listing the catalogue’s title, author and the catalogue number for the print. This is a convenience for the bidders and will often boost the sales price.

Online sources for finding catalogues raisonne

Free Online Catalogues Raisonne and Information Sources:

John James Audubon:
brief but useful info page

Marc Chagall:

Leroy Neiman:
Neiman’s official site, maintained by his publisher. Includes commentary for collectors by the artist.

Pablo Picasso: 
This site is run by a Texas A & M Professor of Spanish Studies.

Andy Warhol :
This site is maintained by a gallery that published many of Warhol’s works. The information is endorsed by the Warhol estate.

Winslow Homer’s Harper’s Woodcuts:
Not a comprehensive data source, but pictures all of Homer’s prints for the popular 1800s magazine

Gemini G.E.L. Online Catalogue Raisonne : 
Famous printing house, gives great detail on prints made by their famous printers including Warhol and Lichtenstein. Detailed images.

Titles Search:

The Print Council Index to Oeuvre-Catalogues of Prints by European and American Artists. This lists about all of the catalogues raisonne ever published:

Online Booksellers:

Barnes and Noble


Alibris (Specializes in rare books, so offers a larger selection)

eBay (Check regularly, and you will often see rare catalogues for auction.)

Other information sources:

Progression proofs

Progression proofs are proofs, or test prints, that are used by the printers to test the colors and color alignment before final printing of art prints, posters, cereal boxes, postcards or whatever they are printing. The purpose of such proof printing is to identify and correct any errors and make sure everything looks good before you print the final product. You don’t want to print 5,000 final movie posters then realize you did a dumb miscalulation that made the colors look horrible or printed the text upside down. You want these types of errors weeded out in the proofing stage.

There was a series of progression proofs for a print, with each proof testing a unique color combination. For example, one proof was printed in black and white, the next black and yellow, the next blue and red, and so on. The set will show the prints in a variety, or progression, of colors. Progression proofs are often also called ‘color separation proofs,’ or ‘color separation tests,’ all which are acceptable names.

The below shows a progression proof set for a 1975 Hostess baseball card, printed by the famous Topps Chewing Gum Company of New York City.  Each card has a different color combination.


“Can a home computer print be considered an original?”

Yes, if the design did not exist before– meaning it’s not a reproduction, copy or similar. Assuming there isn’t major graphic embellishment, if someone scans and computer prints out the cover of Reader’s Digest, that’s not original. However, if your young daughter draws a unique picture of her kitty cat on a computer drawing program and prints it out for the refrigerator door, that’s as original as that Rembrandt etching in the museum.

The common pitfall in defining what is original is assigning false qualities to the term. Common phrases one will hear include: “It’s by Picasso and sold for $1 million. It’s got to be original” … “A cheesy baseball card sold in packs of gum can’t be as original as a painting” … ” An original can’t be in a kid’s fingerpaints. It’s got to be something like oils” … “I paid $1,000 for it, so I consider it an original” …

While financial value, artist’s celebrity, beauty and prevailing taste are fine and dandy qualities, they have nothing to do with originality. The originality of your daughter’s computer sketch isn’t defined by its sell price on eBay.

Silver pocket change

United States nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollar coins dated 1964 and earlier are 90 percent silver.

There is an ultra rare and valuable 1965 silver US dime that is in part identified by it’s completely silver edge. The normal non-silver 1965 dimes have a visually noticeable brown/copper colored layer on the edge.

Celluloid: Identifying the collectable antique plastic


Late 1800s celluloid advertising pin with lithograph graphics

antique faux-ivory celluloid brushes

antique faux-ivory celluloid brushes

As with today, in the late 1800s and early 1900s plastics were used to make a plethora of products, from jewelry and toys to electrical fixtures and plumbing parts. With many of today’s antique collectors, certain  early plastics are in vogue and sought after, in particular when in the form of eye-appealing items like art deco jewelry, advertising pins and old timey radios.

This post is a quick look at one of the popular forms of antique plastic, named celluloid. 

Celluloid is the trade name for a plastic that was widely used in the 1800s and early 1900s to make pins, fountain pens, buttons, toys, dolls, figures and many other products. It was commonly used as an ivory substitute, to make cheaper version of items with ivory such as toiletry boxes, billiard balls, handles and backings for hand mirrors, combs and brush handles. If you ever see the name ‘French ivory’ or ‘Ivorine,’ that is faux-ivory celluloid. Though widely used in its day, drawbacks to celluloid included that it was flammable, fragile and deteriorated with time. Due to the common decomposition, antique celuloid in top condition is prized today.

Identifying celluloid: Celluloid tends to be much thinner and lighter than other period plastics. You can often see right through the plastic when held up to a bright light, even if it’s dyed. The easy and reliable test for celluloid is to place it under hot water for a few seconds, then smells it. If it smells like camphor it’s probably celluloid.

Interesting celluloid fact: Anne Frank wrote much of her diary with her favorite celluloid pen that was given to her on her 13th birthday. In her diary, she wrote a memorial to the pen after it was destroyed in a small fire in the compound in which she and her family were hiding.

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The story behind a fake tobacco card of Honus Wagner

Honus Wagner baseball card forgery

Honus Wagner baseball card forgery

From time to time, one sees offered for sale or auction this Freeman Cigar Co. card depicting the legendary early 20th century baseball short stop Honus (Hans) Wagner. If offered as vintage (as it nearly always is), it is a fake. The card was made in the 1990s. It has a computer printed image on paper, pasted to cardboard stock.

There are authentic early 1900s Hans Wagner tobacco labels printed on white paper and to be stuck onto tobacco boxes. The labels are extremely rare, with just a few examples known to exist, and come in various designs. The most expensive examples will most likely offered by major auction houses or top dealers. One of the labels has a close design to this card.

About 1993, a manufactuer of collectable retro tin signs made a sign based on the design of the just mentioned tobacco label. This man was selling his signs as modern collectables, not representing themselves as vintage. The sign was not an exact copy of the label. He added the 5 cents sign at the bottom for artistic balance. He also used a different text font in parts, as he could not find a modern duplicate of the original font.

A couple of years ago, a man in Ohio used a computer printer to reprint the tin signs as the tobacco trade cards– naturally roughing them up and scuffing the cards to make them appear old. He sold them at flea markets to unsuspecting non-collectors, who knew the legend of Honus Wagner and thought they had struck gold.

So, when you see one of these cards for sale, treat it as a modern fantasy card in bad condition– worth two bucks at very most. If you like the design, you can go out and buy one of the ‘original’ tin signs.

Ancient wax paintings


Ancient Greek encaustic painting on wood of woman

Encaustic painting is a ancient wax-based painting technique that has been revived in recent years.

Using hot bees wax as the material to hold the color pigments, an encaustic painting is easy to identify at a museum or gallery because it has a distinct waxy appearance. It was used by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and is found in the famous Egyptian tombs. It was rarely used for hundreds of years after due to the universal popularity of oil paints. However, the technique was revived in the 20th century and you can likely find a local beginner’s class on how to make your own encaustic paintings.

Chinese antiques export laws

In order to protect its national cultural heritage, it is illegal in China since 2009 to export any Pre-1900 Chinese antiques. Assume any vase, work of art or other artifact sold directly from China is from after 1900. It is, however, legal to export from China Chinese items from 1900 and after and these items sometime come with red export seals. The seal is not authentication of the item, just marking that a government inspector deemed the item not to be Pre-20th century and it was exported legally . . . Any items legally exported before 2009, including antiquities, can be legally bought and sold.  And there is much Pre-1900 Chinese artifacts that were exported from China before 2009.