For a Christmas purchase that's a departure from the usual tie, socks or earrings, there are fabulous vintage Christmas items ranging from Nativities to candy containers to glass ornaments, just waiting for an appreciative owner. Here are some ideas for unique collectibles that are in line with the season.
Collecting vintage Nativity figures covers a lot of ground. Crèche figures represent the Holy Family, the wise men, attendants and common laborers. Collect by country of origin (Germany, France, Italy, etc.), media (paper, papier-maché, plaster, terra cotta, etc.) or size (from pocket-sized to floor-sized).
There are endless varieties within each of these areas. German crèche figures circa 1890 (early) made of hollow papier-maché are rare and highly collectible due to the detail in the facial expressions and clothing.
Prices: Italian 18th-century carved cherub crèche figure in original clothing (silk shirt, velvet coat with decoration and green silk pants), with a terra cotta painted face and polychromed boots: $450.
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The Belsnickel was a Pennsylvania Dutch/German Christmas character. The most widely accepted translation is "Nicholas in his furs," referring to St. Nicholas. The major difference between Belsnickel and Santa Claus was that Santa was portrayed as a jolly, whiskered adult-sized elf in a red suit whereas the Belsnickel carried a whip and switches for bad boys and girls.
Early Belsnickel figurines, produced in Germany from the 1870s into the early 20th century, generally were made from molded papier-maché and had bright colored robes flecked with mica. Most were molded in two parts so they could hold candy treats inside. Never meant to be collected, they are hard to find -- especially in large sizes (they were made as small as 6" to as tall as 15") and colors such as green, brown, purple, pink and black. Very rare figures have an open mouth showing teeth or have, instead of a fur beard, one made of glass icicles.
Prices: 19th century German, 11½", red robe: $650
19th century German, 8½", light blue robe: $470
19th century German, 7¾", light yellow robe: $650.
: Be careful of reproductions made from old molds -- there aren't any markings to help recognize the originals. It's best to buy from a dealer who will guarantee originality.
These are embossed cardboard decorations, made between 1880 and 1910, from the Dresden-Leipzig area of Germany. Charming and beautiful, they come in an endless variety of shapes: moons, fish and animals, including exotic creatures such as polar bears and storks. There were also sailboats, sleighs and coaches pulled by horses with tiny coachmen. Most Dresdens were only 2" to 4" high and were gilded or silvered, although some were painted by artisans.
There are three types of Dresden Christmas ornaments: one-dimensional (embossed on one side), two-dimensional (embossed on both sides but fairly flat) and three-dimensional.
Prices: 1910 Dresden cardboard three-dimensional elephant, 4": $520
1910 Dresden cardboard three-dimensional jockey on horse, 3": $625.
These are the earliest form of glass Christmas decorations, having come into vogue in the 1850s. The Kugel (German for ball or sphere) had fancy brass embossed caps on a silvered glass ball.
With Kugels, it's all about color and shape combinations. The color is in the glass; rarely is it painted on. The most common is silver Kugel, with only the silver lining showing through. Other common colors are gold, yellow-green, cobalt, blue and pinkish-red. Rarer colors include olive and moss green, copper/bronze, deep red, burgundy, orange and amethyst. Ball shapes are the most common and grapes the next most common. Rare and hard-to-find shapes are artichokes, berry clusters and pine cones. Kugels have a luster, weight and aged patina that other old Christmas ornaments just can't match.
Prices: 1890s Kugel, cobalt grape cluster, 5 ¾": $225
1890s Kugel, gold carrot, 4": $120
1890s Kugel, cranberry silver ball, 3 ¼": $220.
Clear Glass Light Bulbs
The golden age of lighting was from 1900 to 1950. One of the reasons for early interest in lightbulbs was safety, to prevent fires from using candles on trees.
The early bulbs were blown glass with carbon filaments (smaller replicas of the household bulb), but these burned very hot; in later years tungsten replaced carbon as the filament of choice. These bulbs were made in colored glass and later were made into holiday shapes, such as Santa Claus, angels, fruits, flowers, snowmen, clowns and popular characters. The bulb makers changed to opaque, milky-white glass in the 1920s because the paint stayed better on the glass.
Prices: 1940 Snow White human-figure bulb, 2-3/4": $275
circa 1930s Andy Gump human-figure bulb, 2¾": $90
1935 lion with tennis racket, 2 3/4": $50
1935 sad dog in basket, 3-3/8": $25.
Bubble lights were first introduced in 1942 by manufacturer Noma. The bubbling is caused by a combination of a chemical and the heat of the light. Most bubble lights are variations of the familiar candle shape, but some figural bubble lights were produced which are very rare.
Prices: 1944 Noma 9 bubble lights in original box: $50.
These were made in all shapes and sizes and in many different materials. Early 19th-century Christmas trees were decorated with cookies, fruits and nuts, and beginning around 1870, Dresden ornaments often came with small silk bags that usually held a single treat.
In the 1880s, figures made of papier-maché that could hold candy became popular. Some elaborate ones were extremely detailed, such as reindeer or Father Christmas, that separated at the waist and concealed a tube that held candy. Some separated at the neck and candy could be stored in the body.
Prices: Santa candy container stamped "Made in Germany," circa 1920s, papier-maché construction, 4½": $200
reindeer candy container, circa 1890s -- the reindeer has glass eyes, painted face, leather reins, wood hooves, is covered in velvet felt and is pulling a wood sled that measures 3" high and 10" in total length (the reindeer is 5" tall and 5-1/4" long) -- antlers are lead and his head comes off and the body is hollow: $800.
: When collecting vintage Christmas items beware of reproductions. Most items have been reproduced in the past 30 years, so before you invest in an expensive item learn from books, other collectors and dealers. Appraisals can work too, but are expensive, so it's best to get them only for costly items.
Malcolm Katt is the owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also co-authored the second edition of
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