From Primitive Privy Peg-Lamps to Louis Tiffany!

Collecting Antique Lighting – History Illuminated

These are the best of the old glass lamps I’ve found over the years while digging bottle dumps or scuba diving.  I’m always happy to find one whole, but usually a little disappointed that they aren’t more valuable. Most of these, even though some were made at the Sandwich Glass Works in Massachusetts in the 1800s, are worth somewhere in the $50 – $150 range.

Collecting antique lighting is a fascinating pursuit, with many layers to it. I would venture to say that there are very few people who collect “antique lighting,” without being very specific about what it is they collect.

For me, as an antique bottle digger and scuba diver, I’ve been amazed at some of the old lighting pieces that I’ve come across by chance.  Old whale oil or kerosene lamp fixtures became obsolete once houses were electrified, sometime around the turn of the century in most cases.  And occasionally (lucky for me), the lamp got tossed into an old trash dump, or into a river with other trash, and managed to survive.

This rare pair of early hand blown flint glass lamps is an example of “lace maker lamps,” and the pair brought an astounding $6,600.00 recently on Ebay. They look so similar to the two in my collection shown above…but they’re not the same!

Primitive Privy Peg-lamp.  My favorite lamp, of the ones I’ve found, is this little round mini lamp, which consists of a rounded peg on a small globe which held whale oil.  This particular lamp was designed so that you could carry it at night from your house out to the outhouse (privy), and set the peg into a whole on a little ledge inside the outhouse, while you take care of business.

When I refer to being specific about what you collect, when you collect “lighting,” let me give you one great example.  There are people whose total obsession in life is assembling 100% original and 100% complete lighting fixtures.  Do you see on the chart below, those two small items called “burner collar” and “wick raiser knob?”  Do you have an old antique whale oil lamp with a beautiful base and “font” (body, I call it) and shade etc., but either of those two small connecter parts are replacement parts, or reproductions and not original? Well, those missing or mismatched pieces can take hundreds of dollars in value off of high end antique lamps.

This chart is from a great website called Kerosene Connection. It shows the basic parts of old whale oil and kerosene lamps.

So the obsessive types (said with loving admiration) will be the ones at outdoor antique shows on their hands and knees digging through boxes of miscellaneous “parts” (hopefully lamp parts), in search of one little brass piece that for them, may wind up being “worth” $500.00 if it completes a lamp.

Recently on Ebay, I sold off my box of accumulated brass lamp parts, mostly “burners.”  I sold it with no guarantees, but I’m hoping the buyer found one he really needed. What makes one the “right one” is usually determined by very small company markings and patent dates marked on the brass itself.

“Collecting” lighting is tricky because you can’t really buy 50 different lamps, and put them in a display case. So often, like at an estate auction, a large chandelier or beautiful large floor lamp will come up for sale, and the owner can’t flip it unless he knows he has a buyer lined up who needs one to actually use for light or for display in their home. It’s hard to store a chandelier. But like a white elephant, if you desperately want or need one, you’d give the sun and the moon for one. So, it’s a calculated risk.

The only real “collectible” antique lights, are mini lamps or finger lamps, which can certainly be collected and displayed on shelving and glass cabinets. The earliest examples of these can bring high prices, and are fascinating to collect!

Miniature lamps are an awesome thing to collect, the perfect size, with thousands of variations and styles. These three are early American pieces, with original burners and wicks.

Now, if you have very deep pockets, and hang out around the big New York or Paris auction houses, there is only one name at the top of the “lighting” list in terms of value. And that name is Louis Tiffany.  There are volumes of reference materials on Tiffany, so I won’t give a crash course here.  But what is important to know is that the “high end” of an authentic “Tiffany” lamp shade or lamp base is up in another stratosphere.  So it is wise to learn the basics. If you come across a piece that has some provenance, and you have a feeling it could be a genuine Tiffany piece, it is worth whatever time, effort, and money it takes to get it right

This antique Art Nouveau Tiffany tulip lampshade is under 5” tall, and sold recently on Ebay for $829.99!  It was one of a set of 7 similar shades, all of which brought that price. The seller listed the maker as “Tiffany Studios (New York, NY  1878-1933),  marked “L.C.T.,” circa 1900.  It is a beautiful piece of art glass, but if you saw it at your local church fair, would you be able to spot it? Not me !

The markings and signatures used in Tiffany workmanship are very precise and make it possible to date pieces to a particular artist and studio, as well as identify the date the piece was made. Tiffany made some of the most beautiful and opulent man made items ever created and is certainly in a class of its own. I’ll keep digging and scuba diving,  but I think my chances of coming up with anything that came out of a Tiffany Studio are nil.  But who knows.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at

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