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The Antique Detective: Where Did The Aluminum Collectors Go?

Collecting Historical Tins


Vintage Wendell August turkey platter. Courtesy: Anne Gilbert collection

Unmarked vintage candle holder, (one of pair). Courtesy: Anne Gilbert collection

News Article

Where Did The Aluminum Collectors Go?

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, June 2007

Today’s beginning collectors should consider a few hard facts before putting serious money into a currently trendy collectible. Just as times change so to do collector’s tastes. Yesterday’s “hot” collectible can suddenly be history. If prices and price guides are any indication aluminum prices are on a downer. The average prices range from $25 to $50. Exceptions are rarities or vintage pieces made by Bruce Fox and Wendell August. Still pricey, but falling into popular 1950s modernism is aluminum furniture designed by Eero Saarinen or the 1930s garden furniture of George Steedman. Even the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum exhibit of Aluminum and its history, in 2001, didn’t perk up prices. All of this is surprising considering the craftsmanship involved.  

However, there has always been a dedicated group of aluminum collectors who mainly bought utilitarian pieces that included classics like the Wendell August turkey platter. 

When aluminum was first created in the 1850s it was considered a “marvel of science”. During the decade from 1856 to 1862 it was made in such limited quantities that it was considered rare and so valued that when it was made into jewelry it was embellished with gold and other precious metals. Even perfume bottles of the day combined aluminum with a variety of materials such as gold and glass. By 1861 it was out of fashion. 

By the turn of the century aluminum had moved from elegance to everyday items such as combs. It was the 1932 Philadelphia Museum of Art Exhibit of contemporary industrial art that stirred up interest among everyday consumers. Aluminum kitchen utensils, lamps, tables and chairs became popular. Until the beginning of World War II, every bride anticipated receiving at least one aluminum wedding gift. Trays in myriads of designs, along with baskets were turned out by dozens of manufacturers to meet the demand. 

Along with decorative objects, aluminum cookware was on bridal lists. Among the first manufacturers were Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later Alcoa), Wagnerware and Illinois Pure Aluminum Co. 

CLUES: Over the years vintage aluminum develops a dull finish. However, when gently rubbed with fine steel wool or cleaned in the dishwasher it looks like silver. Many 19th century pieces go unrecognized as being aluminum, mainly because people don’t expect to find antique opera glasses, cruet stands and jewelry made of aluminum. 

Look for aluminum objects combined with other materials such as candle holders with jade green, bakelite handles. Eventually a new generation will rediscover aluminum for its craftsmanship and prices will go up.

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