ITALIAN ENAMEL CASES
For the sake of conciseness I have chosen to name this category of collectible compacts as 'Italian Enamels' even though some are not enamelled at all. I guess I am just following the generally accepted terminology even if it does hide a number of sins.
More correctly, this category should be known as 'Florentine Souvenir' cases because they all originated in Florence and they were expressly manufactured for the tourist or export (American) market, especially following the end of The Second World War.
Regardless, this type of compact is one prized by collectors because of their colourful and often highly detailed miniatures of past works of art. In addition, most are made from 800 graded silver (sterling is typically graded as 925). Finally, they are sought after by collectors because they are in demand and often command very high prices.
To buy a good quality, 800 silver, enamelled case you should expect to pay, on average, $300 - $450. If the enamelled scene is rare this price can triple.
Not all cases in this general category should command such prices, however. Many cases are made from brass, others use hand painted scenes mounted under glass or plastic. Still others use plastic, faux ivory, casts of classical scenes and many, especially the smaller pill boxes, are painted crudely producing an almost cartoonish effect. Finally, many cases have no decoration other than the characteristic acanthus leaf hand chasing.
These cases were made by many different silversmiths most of whom used distinctive techniques, especially the hand chasing and the way they painted the semi-precious stone effects commonly used in border decorations. But, in truth, it is difficult to distinguish one silversmith's work from another's.
The real determinants of value for these cases are:
Type of Metal
Most Italian enamelled cases were made from 800 silver but some were made from brass. Brass cases will never be stamped with anything except "Made in Italy" or something similar. There will never be any hallmarks. This is important because some brass cases look as if they are silver, down to the hand chasing on the sides and base of the case. Check my blog post. Brass cases deserve to be valued at no more than $150-$180 but some sell for more than this if the buyer thinks they are silver or if the decorated scene is rare.
Type of Decoration
The most popular and most expensive type of decorative technique is painting miniatures of works of art in vitreous enamel. Less costly alternatives include, hand painting on paper, mounted under glass or plastic, moulded plastic (looking like ivory) scenes in relief or simply cases painted to simulate semi precious stones such as malachite, lapis lazuli or turquoise. The rule of thumb is - the more intricate the decoration, the more valuable the case is.
Rarity of Decoration
I have identified about 440 different scenes used to decorate these Florentine cases. Most are miniatures of existing works of art but some are completely imaginary, although they have been influenced by original works. There are some favourite scenes, especially those painted by the Rococo French artists, Francois Boucher and Nicolas Lancret. But some scenes are much less commonly used and these can command very high prices. The rarer the scene, the more valuable the case.
Quality of Brushwork
In my experience, when these cases were first made, in the 1930s, they exhibited the characteristics of fine pieces of enamelled silverware. Care was taken in their construction and decoration. But after the Second World War, and in the 1950s and 1960, particularly, quality declined. Cheaper cases were offered as souvenirs with very poor brushwork of the scenes. Some looking like cartoons. But some continued the older tradition of the finest that Florentine silversmiths could offer. The better the quality of the brushwork, the more valuable the case.
No matter how rare the scene or how well painted and even if the case is made from 800 silver, if the condition of the case is poor its value will drop. While vitreous enamel is very tough and is scratch resistant, it can be damaged if the case was dropped and small scratches can become evident if the case has been stored carelessly. Often the internal mirrors are damaged and the mirror bezel, powder screen and puff missing. Look for undamaged cases with little or no surface scratching with all internal fittings intact.
This is one of the great imponderables for collectors and appraisers. When everything points to an object not being desirable, one collector will emerge and pay the earth for it. Mostly, though, great quality will have great appeal. Here are some examples.
This is an extract from a February 1964 Coppini & Co price catalog. These cases are vintage but not antique. The technique used to decorate objects like vanity cases, pill boxes, lipsticks, combs, hand mirrors, cigarette cases and lighters in the manner shown was characteristic of Florentine jewellers and silversmiths between the mid 1930s and no later than about 1970.
You may see examples of these cases being advertised as "Victorian' or as dating to the late 19th Century or early 20th Century. Such claims are totally incorrect. The vast majority were manufactured in the 1950s and early 1960s with very few dating to no earlier than the mid 1930s.