You can buy hundreds of Murano glass clowns, all with bright colors and comical expressions, handmade on the island of Murano, Italy, but they will cost you.
Here are some famous clowns that might amuse you: Happy the Snowman, Binky, Play Poker, Ballsy (he’s holding a ball – lest you think otherwise), Bombolo, Boozy, Bongo. Well, you get the picture.
They cost $800 to $1,000 each.
But you have a mid-century Murano clown? What is that ugly thing worth?
Online, there are collectors who showcase an entire cabinet of such ludicrous figures. J.T. sends me five pieces of mid-century Murano glass: two fish, a bowl, a swan and a swordfish. “Does anyone like these? Do they sell? For how much?” she asks.
First, certain Murano figures are worth more than others. The really good Murano pieces are not whimsical clowns, or fish, or swans, but works of art. On these pieces, you may see an artist’s signature. Look for Tagliapietra, Mandruzzato, Toso, Vetri.
These can be made recently or in the case of Venini, date from the mid-century. Those are hot in the market. The whimsical figures are a whole different kettle of fish.
Clowns began to be made at Murano in 1964 when the inexpensive “Art Form” was reinvented by Frattelli Pitau. This company is still family owned and TODAY makes those scary clowns. These are based on the inexpensive clown figures from the mid-20th century from Murano: iconic, kitsch-y. These are the clowns that mid-century folks collect, from 1940-60, and are called Venetian clowns.
I mentioned that Italian glass blowers still make Venetian clowns. The modern clowns are hollow-bodied, and the vintage ones are solid.
The clowns cost $18 to $25 in the mid-century. The Pitau clowns (still made today) can be purchased for up to $1,000. Yes, there are fakes: Mexican figures with solid bodies, but they are not finished well, made of colored glass with aqua colored overlay.
Murano glass is prized because of its chemical combination: 70% silica sand and 30% “fluxes” (soda and lime). This combination allows the glass to melt at a lower temperature, which means the glass is crystal clear. Other glass manufacturers, to avoid bubbles in glass, sometimes use lead. If you see obvious air bubbles in a figure that are not part of the design, it may be a fake. On most true Murano figures, you’ll find or feel a pontil mark, which is the scar left when the glass blower breaks the pontil rod away from the finished glass. Murano glass figures have identifiable pontil marks.
Recently I have been seeing reports that fake Murano glass of all forms are being made in China. “The official consortium of Murano Glass companies established in Venice in 1985 requires that the production factory of every member company be based on Murano island, and does not accept as members companies (even Italian ones) that produce their art glass outside of Murano,” says the website Glass of Venice.com.
Here are some of my tips to help when you fall in love with a piece of glass, and wonder if it is Murano:
- Handmade objects are never alike, even though there may be two which are similar.
- A “real” piece of Murano glass will bear ever so small little bubbles, and if you have a chance to run your hands along the pieces, the surface will be uneven.
- If you are buying online, take a good look at the photo. A seller who knows what he/she is doing will provide a photo that YOU can enlarge.
- The colors in Murano glass are VERY strident. There is no wishy-washy color.
- Here’s a fine shade of meaning: Murano style glass is NOT Murano glass.
- Murano glass CAN have 24K gold flecks and silver IN the glass.
Now, how much are J.T.’s objects worth? The pair of fish, J.T., I think are copies, not true Murano; they are too large, and the colors are not “garish” enough.
But the swan is “right.” I can see the silver flecks in the wings, true Murano. It is delicate and graceful, unlike the fish, and is worth $150. I believe the swordfish is a Mexican copy of Murano glass, and is not worth much, perhaps $20. The ugly brown bowl is the real deal: The brown in combination with the white is very mid-century, the casing of glass over the colors is clear: worth $100.
If you have Murano, however, check for signatures. Sometimes the master blowers made small pieces (usually in vessel form), and they can be worth thousands.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears every week in the Salon & Style section. Her new book, “Collect Value Divest: The Savvy Appraiser,” is available at local bookstores and at amazon.com. Send questions and photos to Ask the Gold Digger, c/o News-Press, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359, or email ElizabethAppraisals@gmail.com.