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Antique glass collecting for beginners

Updated on March 10, 2013

A piece of ruby-stained glass from bygone years

Time to get out and kick some glass! (Not literally)

Ahh … the lure of a gorgeous piece of antique glass. To some people, it's enough to send them into a spiral of disinterest (usually capped with loud snoring), but for the rest of us – myself included – holding such a thing in your hands is downright intoxicating!

If you are looking at an old piece of glass, there are some things to consider (and do) before purchasing it:

Most glass collectors are ruthless when it comes to condition. Anything short of perfection is unacceptable. Sometimes when your eyes are dazzled by the beauty of a piece, it's hard to see the flaws. There are a couple of ways you can check it out.

1) Let your fingers do the walking: It is often easier to feel imperfections if you close your eyes and use the tips of your fingers to look for chips. You will know a chip (or flake) when you feel it. The edges will be sharper than the remainder of the glass. Once you have felt an imperfection, you can use your eyes to examine it further and determine if it's worthwhile to purchase this piece.

2) Tap that glass: The best way to tell if glass has a crack is to give it a light tap. Glass has a ring when it is tapped (not like crystal, which has a sharper tone). If you hit a piece and it gives a dull "thunk" sound, it probably is cracked.

A note on chips and cracks: I find chips and flakes in old glass (75 years or better) to be of less concern to me than a crack. I will absolutely not buy a piece of glass that is cracked. Once glass has that fissure running through it, there is a great likelihood that the crack will continue to travel. This will eventually cause permanent damage that will NOT be aesthetically pleasing (the piece could literally split in half!).

Sometimes you will find pieces with repairs. It is up to you to determine what your level of comfort is. Old repairs (using staples) are common on rare pieces. Someone went to an awful lot of work and expense to make that kind of repair, so it might still be a worthwhile investment (if the price if right). A simpler glue repair ... not so much.

OK, back to our list:

3) Temps make a difference: Say you have found a gorgeous piece, nestled in a case under a hot light. The glass is probably in the range of .... 80 degrees, let's say (perhaps more). But outside it's freezing. This is a scenario that could lead to disaster. If you love that glass, ask the shop owner to bring it out and set it aside, away from the heat. Let is cool down gradually. Glass ... old stuff especially ... cannot handle such vast variations in temperatures. If the shopkeeper wraps the glass in tissue and pops it into a bag, and you take it out to your car, there is a chance that the piece could crack. It's a nightmare scenario, but it happens.

4) They say it's old, but I don't know: One of the telltale signs of old glass is, quite simply, wear. If you were to live to be 100 years old, you would have a little bit of wear to your body. A piece of glass is the same way. Most of the time, the wear shows on the bottom of the piece, where it's been rubbed across a surface hundreds of times throughout the years. Tiny scratches will show up on the base. Some scammers will try to re-create these scratches with sandpaper, but they look too fine. Real age scratches should be in all directions, perhaps varying in depth (not fine uniform scratches caused by sand paper). If it's a bowl or platter, scratches can also show up on the top surface of the piece from utensils being scraped across it.

So, you've found the perfect piece and have brought it home safe and sound. It's a little filthy, though. You would like to clean it. What is the best way?

Without a doubt, a simple solution of dish soap and water is the best cleaner. If the piece has crevices, use a toothbrush to clean it.

Wax or other grime can be removed by scraping the piece with a credit card (not anything metal).

If you wash it, take care not to bang it against anything metal. The surest way to break glass is to hit it with metal. My mother can attest to this: Just the other day, she was reminding me of how I broke a carnival glass pitcher (in which I had decided to make juice for some unknown reason) by using a metal spoon to stir the mixture. Oddly, glass on glass hits seldom cause breakage (although they make a brutal noise).

Some people swear by a vinegar solution to make things shine. I have never had to resort to that, but it sounds like a great idea.

On a side note: Sometimes people will think that they can clean off the mineral deposits from “sick” glass (that whitish film left behind from water, most common in vases and bowls). I have found it next to impossible to clean this off. That's not to say I have never bought sick glass … I have. But I have purchased this type of damaged piece only in rare cases and with no anticipation of being able to remove the minerals.

Glass collecting can be addicting, but it is a wonderful drug. Like any other form of collecting, if you buy what you like, you will never go wrong. And … truly … it is the pieces that I haven't bought that have caused me more angst than those I have.

So, here's to glass: We can live without it, but do we really want to?



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