Q & A with Harry Rinker: Thomas Nast Christmas Book, Mardi Gras Favor

QUESTION: I have a copy of Thomas Nast’s “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.” The title page reads: “New York / Harper & Brothers / Printers & Publishers / Franklin Square M DCCC XC [1890].” The copyright is 1889. The book measures 8 ½ inches by 11 inches. There are 66 illustrations listed in the table of contents. The cover features a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh and Mother Goose flying on a goose. It appears as though they are racing. I have heard that this book with an 1889 copyright is worth more than if it had an 1890 copyright. What help can you provide?

– RS, Janesville, WI, via e-mail

Harry RinkerANSWER: Thomas Nast (1840-1902), a political cartoonist who worked primarily for “Harper’s Weekly,” is largely responsible for the modern-day image of Santa Claus. Instead of the St. Nicholas’ bishop’s robes, Santa is a white-bearded, pot-bellied gentleman wearing a red suit trimmed in white and black boots.

Nast left “Harper’s Weekly” in 1886 at a time when he was experiencing financial difficulties due to failed investments. In 1889, Nast gathered together the Christmas drawings he did for “Harper’s Weekly,” added some new drawings, and published the collection as “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.” “Harper’s” retained the copyright. Over the years, the five Nast children served as models in some of the drawings. The book was released during the Christmas 1890 season. It was a success and helped Nast resolve his debts.

When Nast left “Harper’s,” he tried his hand at oil paintings. His efforts received a lukewarm reception. In1901, President Roosevelt, a patron on the arts, appointed Nast as Consul General in Ecuador. Nast died there of yellow fever in 1902.

[Author’s Aside: Roosevelt also secured a federal clerk’s position in the New York City Custom House for poet Edwin Arlington Robinson.]

I was not able to find any reference to copies of “Christmas Drawings for the Human Race” that had an 1890 copyright page. It is common for copyright dates to differ from printing date. I did find two cover variations. Your book has a value between $900 and $1,000.

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QUESTION: I recently purchased a letter opener that appears to be from the 1910 New Orleans Mardi Gras. It has a relief image of King Rex at the top and “Rex 1910” at the bottom. It is 10 ½ inches in length and appears to have some type of gold plating. What can you tell me about it?

– FS, Ballinger, TX, via e-mail

ANSWER: Your letter opener is a Rex souvenir from the 1910 New Orleans Mardi Gras. I found several identical examples that had been offered for sale while searching the Internet. Hence, the letter opener is a common rather than scarce item.

There appears to have been several variations. One reference described the letter opener as made from brass. Another indicated that it was gold plated. The pictures that accompanied your e-mail suggest it was made from base metal and then plated. Examples where the plating survived are worth more than those on which the plating has been lost.

New Orleans celebrated Carnival and “Boeuf Gras,” the giving up of flesh for Lent, from the earliest days of the town’s founding. In 1857, a group formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, and staged the first nighttime parade. In 1872, Rex was introduced in attempt to bring order to the street parades and honor the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, who was visiting the city. Rex, whose motto is “Pro Bono Publico” (for the public good), staged the first day-time parade. Initially, Rex rode a horse. The first Rex Ball, a costume but non-mask affair, was held in 1873.

Purple, green and gold, the colors of Rex, are the official colors of Mardi Gras. Rex arrives in the city on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) aboard a barge. His meeting with King Zulu marks the official start of Carnival. On Mardi Gras day, King Rex received the keys to the city.

[Author’s Aside: While Rex is king of the Carnival, he does not use “King” in front of his name. The same applies to Comus. Many of the other Krewes do have individuals who use “King” as part of their name.]

I spoke with Mary Lou Eichhorn, reference associate at The Williams Research Center. She provided me with the following information taken from Arthur Burton La Cour’s “New Orleans Masquerade,” published in 1957. Friends of Fable was the Rex theme in 1910. The ball was held on Feb. 8, 1910, in the Athenaeum. Hunter C. Leak was Rex and Amelia Baldwin was the queen. It was customary for krewes to provide favors for ball attendees. These included ashtrays, letter openers, mugs and pins.

There are several Mardi Gras museums, including Ark-La-Tex Mardi Gras Museum in Bossier City, La. and the Treasure Chest Casino Mardi Gras Museum in Rivertown, Kenner, La. The Williams Research Center in New Orleans has an extensive collection of Mardi Gras material.

The value of your letter opener is between $150 and $175. Examples with the gilding intact bring more.

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QUESTION: I purchased six, color-pencil cartoon caricatures of baseballs player—pitcher, batter, and umpire—at an estate sale for $5 each. The uniforms suggest 1950s. They are signed either “JL” or “J. Liello.” I cannot locate any information about the artist. Each picture is framed. The drawings measure 9in x 12in inside the double mat. The back is covered with a brown paper, which I suppose I should remove to check whether the backing is acid free. Did I get a good deal?

– SD, Orlando, Fla., via e-mail

ANSWER: I enjoyed looking at the pictures that accompanied your e-mail. If an amateur, the artist is very talented. I also was unable to find any information about the artist. The pictures, however, are strong and stand on their own.

I found markings/logos for two teams—the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians. Both teams trained on Florida’s west coast during the 1950s. There is no doubt in my mind that these pictures were done during spring training, and you are correct in your assumption that they date from the 1950s.

I recommend you remove the paper backing and check to see (1) if the back board is acid free and (2) how the drawings are held in place. Look at the bevels of the mats. If the bevels are dark brown, then the fill within the top and bottom sheet of the mat is wood pulp. If this proves to be the case, replace the front mat as well. If the drawings are glued in some fashion to the backboard, ask the person at the frame shop if they have the ability to remove the drawings without damaging them. If the answer is no, take them to a paper conservator.

Your drawings are an example of an object whose value increases as more is known about it. Start by visiting the Cardinals and Indians training facilities. Take your drawings or pictures of them with you. Perhaps there is an old timer who might remember “JL.” If this fails, try the local libraries and historical societies in the area. Given the artist’s skill level, these are not the only drawings he has done.

At the moment, your drawings have a value between $45 and $55. Arranged in pairs or sets of three, the value per pair or set would be enhanced by 25 to 35 percent.

If you are able to identify the artist or date the caricatures to a specific date, their value will increase by a third to a half. You did well.

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QUESTION: I have an unopened box containing a Barbie doll dressed in a purple dress. The box reads: “An Exclusive Avon Special Edition.” The story of Mrs. Albee is printed on the inside of the foldout cover. I have a five-year-old granddaughter. Should I save the doll or let her play with it?

– SS, via e-mail

Ask A WorthologistANSWER: Mrs. Persus Foster Eames Albee (December 7, 1836 – 1914) is known at the “First Avon Lady.” David McConnell, the founder of the California Perfume Company (later known as Avon), hired Mrs. Albee to supervise the daily operations of perfume sales. Her title was “General Traveling Agent.” She resided in Winchester, N.H.

Mrs. Albee developed a sales plan involving “depot agents,” women who would sell product door-to-door in their neighborhood. By 1903, 10,000 agents were at work. Attempts currently are underway to raise funds to furnish a room to honor Mrs. Albee in the historic Sheraton House operated by the Winchester, New Hampshire Historical Society.

Avon contracted with Mattel to produce at least two Barbie exclusives of Mrs. Albee. The first edition was issued in 1997. It featured Barbie wearing a lavender taffeta gown with tiered layers near the waist, puffy sleeves, and an elegant train with bustles in back. The taffeta hat features a bow in back and gold, pink, and purple roses. The initial sales price was $129.

Forget the $129. No one in their right mind is going to pay it. I found buy-it-now postings for $75 and $71.49. I am not certain anyone in their right mind is going to pay these either.

EBay features a number of first and second edition Mrs. Albee Barbies. Prices range from $21.99 to $24.99 plus shipping. More than 75 percent of the buyers bought them as a speculative investment, hoping to sell them at a profit five to 10 years later. More than 10 years have past and Mattel’s Mrs. Albee Avon exclusive is selling on the secondary market for 20-cents on the dollar. I do not foresee this changing in the years ahead.

Follow your heart. Your granddaughter is going to get far more enjoyment playing with Mrs. Albee than you will from selling it.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 22 Stillwater Circle, Brookfield, CT 06804. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2009

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