This group of paper table decorations, including a witch, owl, cat ghost and jack-o-lanterns sold for $80.50 at auction in 2006. Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio.
The tradition of Halloween is rooted deep in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, dating back almost 2,000 years. In the areas that are now Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, the New Year was celebrated on November 1, a day that divided summer and the coming of a long, dark winter. Winter was a time of death for humans and animals alike, so on this one night, October 31, the line between living and dead became blurred and ghosts would return to earth. The tradition of “trick-or-treating” is likely traced to All Souls’ Day parades, when the poor of England would beg for “soul cakes” in return for praying for dead relatives.
Undoubtedly, the Jack-O-Lantern, a traditional lantern made from a pumpkin, is the most recognizable symbol associated with Halloween. This somewhat ghoulish lighting device has its origins in an old Irish legend of a trickster named Jack and his bargaining with the devil. Originally, the lantern was made from a turnip, Jack’s favorite food, and to keep Jack away, the Irish would hollow out a variety of vegetables, including turnips, gourds, potatoes and beets. The tradition moved into North America during the early 19th century when a couple of Irish immigrants found that pumpkins were much easier to carve, so the turnip was replaced with the native pumpkin and, in the process, orange and black became the official holiday colors.
Three 1930’s paper Halloween lanterns. Due to their fragile nature, table decorations are popular decorations that are much sought after, bringing from $10 to $100. Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio.
Jack-O-Lantern collectibles are many and varied, depending on age, condition and rarity. Noisemakers made in Germany range from $100-500 and glass candy containers made from the 1890s to the mid-20th century in America, valued from $10-500, are two excellent examples. Most 19th- and early 20th-century Jack-O-Lanterns were created in Germany and made of painted papier-mâché. Others were pottery and a few were even made of metals, such as tin or cast iron. Due to their fragile nature, table decorations are popular decorations that are much sought after, bringing from $10 to $100.
Popular subjects in Halloween decorations have evolved to cover a gamut of ghoulish imagery. Witches, accompanied by brooms sticks, cauldrons and pointed hats, have developed into hallmark symbols of the fall holiday. Others commonly encountered images include black cats, skeletons, devils, ghosts, crescent moons and gravestones.
This hand-painted, German pottery cigarette holder has a value of $200-400. Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio.
Halloween postcards are an extremely popular category of Halloween collectible, with more than 3,000 known examples to choose from and values ranging from a few dollars to more than $500. Complete sets of cards will bring a premium of 10-25 percent more.
Cast iron doorstops with a black cat and Halloween themes are valued at $75-200. A particularly rare example of a child in ghost costume carrying a Jack-O-Lantern or a witch flying on a broom in a doorstop would garner a slightly higher price.
This carved and painted wooden puppet, circa 1890, was part of the central entertainment during the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. It’s valued is $3,000-4,000. Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio.
A type of collectible that is often overlooked is folk art carvings and decorations associated with the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead, a time when Mexican families remember their dead and the continuity of life. These playful creations include puppets, skeletons and alters. The colorful masks can be purchased for as little as $10, with older and finer examples selling in the hundreds of dollars.
Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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