DEALING IN PLASTIC (or caveat emptor!)
There was a time when collecting plastics was a minority sport and pieces could be picked up very cheaply. The downside was that a lot got thrown away. Nowadays, too often, every plastic is described as bakelite and the £’s are piled on even the most common brown bakelite egg cup. There are even fakes appearing with no attempt to deceive such as in the case of animal napkin rings by Drastic Plastic, with a DP cast on the base, but even these are sometimes now sold on the secondary market as originals. Bakelite jewellery is a big case for “buyer beware” with many fakes on the market. However, some are sold honestly, made from original materials with superb crafting and collectable in themselves. Examples are celluloid pieces produced by John MacLellan and phenolic resin pieces by Ron and Ester Shultz, who have all found carefully guarded ways to re-work the old materials.
I’ve seen phenolic resin described as amber many times – frustratingly for amber collectors. For those of us looking for phenolic resin, the price determines whether or not this is to our advantage or not. It always surprises me how dealers cling to their amber definition even when they can smell the phenol. Maybe they think, often wrongly, that amber is worth more. Many celluloid pieces are described a tortoiseshell or ivory. Bournevita mugs with their caps are almost always erroneously described as bakelite, as are items made from materials such as formica, urea formaldehyde or casein.
Where to buy (and sell)
There are unfortunately very few specialist plastics fairs – the last one in the UK about 10 years ago was organized by Patrick Cook at the Design Museum, and there was one a couple of years earlier at the De La Warr Pavilion. Both events were hugely enjoyable for dealers and buyers alike. It must be time for another one (hint!), but, in the meantime, where can you trade plastics? Sources include all the usual places – jumbles, car boots, antique and fleamarkets, antique/collector fairs and centres. I’ve had little luck at charity shops or auction houses, but some people may have done. Art deco fairs and shops often have a bigger selection. There are some specialist plastic dealers, and there are others who have their eye in and sell it when they find it. For example, the Alexandra Palace Fair usually had (sadly in abeyance in 2007) 4 specialist plastic dealers and at least another 8 who will always have a good selection of plastic goods in their stock. Since Gad Sassower stopped dealing from his shop in Camden Passage and started to focus on internet sales, the only specialist plastic outlet I am aware of in the UK is in Alfie’s in Church Street. Please let us know if you are aware of any other specialist shops.
On line, Ebay is the main site to buy and sell. Search for bakelite or celluloid, and most plastics will be covered – sometimes with bakelite under celluloid and vice-versa. Or you can try phenolic or catalin or other plastics to find items. Prices have risen steadily over the years, but the weak dollar has made buying from America more realistic (you have to remember postage costs and sometimes import duty). A word of warning though. Ebay has come in for a lot of criticism from the trade for not addressing issues around fakes and misrepresentation. I recently bought a “magnifying glass with a catalin casing”, with a photo with a familiar amber look, but it turned out to be an ugly tan composition material. Some dealers may genuinely not know the difference, but buying on the basis of photo and description from a stranger is bound have some drawbacks.
What’s it worth?
Millers, and other Collector price guides, always have some plastics in, and sometimes a dedicated section. The most recent specialist book, with price guide, is by Steve Nankervis – Plastic Passion – and published by Schiffer. Also look out for Patrick Cook’s book on bakelite and Sylvia Katz’s Classic Plastic. There are many goods books on Bakelite jewellery, kitchenware and radios to look out for. But beware values – they are fickle once in black and white!
Prices vary enormously and the following comments refer to the position in 2006. Taking plastic trinket/powder boxes for example: a plain, small celluloid one may be between £4-12, more if the colours are stupendous; in brown, black or green bakelite, about £8-15 or more with elaborate mouldings; in cast phenolic, however, the value goes up to £60-150. The Lalique cherry box value is now off the scale, closely followed by Fornell’s fantastic mouldings.
Plain celluloid or bakelite napkin rings are about £1-2 each, and cast phenolic only slightly more. Animal napkin rings in cast phenolic are between £15-25, except for rarities such as the camel or rocking horse or those with wheels, with the celluloid ducks going for £20-30. The widely available bakelite darners, wool holders, egg-cups, inkwells, plates are only a few pounds, although colour affects price. Marbling, such as found in Bandalasta, possibly doubles the value, and will be worth much more if it’s red/orange Bandalasta. Any damage, however, devalues substantially.
Carvacraft values have plateaued in recent years. The following prices are all for amber/yellow pieces in good condition – green is more valuable. The smaller inkwells/stand go for about £40-70 and the larger about £60-90. The ashtray/paperclip holder costs anything between £12-25. The letter opener is about £25. Calenders, photo-frames, bookends and the letter rack are the rarer end of the spectrum with prices often around the £100 mark.
The big money is on very early plastics such as Gutta Percha, Parkesine, decorated celluloid such as cigarette boxes with a hand as the clasp or multi-coloured egg jewelry boxes, carved jewellery in phenolic resin, celluloid or bakelite reticules that go for £200-£500, and phenolic resin carved as animals, bookends or as lamps and light fittings. A pair of elephant cast phenolic bookends recently sold for over £200. Carrying on the elephant theme, the classic combination of palm tree and elephant, about 6-12inches high, can reach up to £400 for a good example.
But the principle which always applies is it is only worth what someone will pay.