Decorative paperweights made in the 19th century not only imposed order on unruly documents, they put the world in a tiny “dome of many-coloured glass.”
Let’s be crystal clear up front—you don’t need an antique paperweight, but no one would blame you for falling in love with them. “If someone came in and said, ‘I want to hold down paper,’ I’d say, ‘Go around the corner to Central Park and get a rock. If that’s the sole purpose, you’d do better getting a heavy object,’” says Jack Feingold of Gem Antiques in Manhattan, adding, “I put antique paperweights in the same class as art glass.”
The finest antique paperweights, or “weights” as those in the know call them, continue to bewitch people more than a century after their golden age ended. Though the basic concept behind the paperweight wasn’t new in the 19th century, and the glass-making techniques used to make them weren’t new either, they caught the West’s cultural imagination around 1845 because the right elements happened to line up. Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia deserves credit for lighting the metaphorical match that started the fire. His display at the 1845 Vienna Industrial Exposition featured several glass paperweights that drew their visual appeal from millefiori, a technique that bunched dozens upon dozens of colorful glass rods inside a dome of clear glass. A member of the Paris Chamber of Commerce swung by his booth and saw a whole lot more than a pleasing setup.
“The French, I think, saw a marketing opportunity,” says Jan Mirenda Smith, executive director of the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wis. “The French glass industry was at a lull, and they were looking to boost the market. They came out with desk accessories, and paperweights were one of the first things they manufactured, along with letter openers, inkwells, and letter seals.” Smith points out other facts that probably helped paperweights have their big moment: paper was becoming cheaper in the 1840s, and the first postage stamps appeared in 1840, trends that encouraged people to write more letters. Also, Victorian householders had to open windows to regulate the temperature, which let in breezes that could wreak havoc on a paper-laden desk. A handsome weight guarded the carefully organized stacks and maintained order.
But a fine paperweight was much more than a tool to anchor a sheaf of documents—it was a status symbol. “In the 19th century, it was a sign of wealth,” says Ben Clark of L.H. Selman, a gallery in Chicago. “It was like having an iPhone now. If you had a fine paperweight on a fine stack of papers, you were at another level.”
Consider also that the paperweight took off in a pre-Internet age when colorful distractions were far fewer and harder to come by. The lavishly detailed glass objects fit perfectly in the atmosphere of a world’s fair or a grand exposition—the closest thing that the 19th century had to the staggering information overload that we in the 21st deal with every day. Also consider that paperweights were probably the first objects to play an all-important role within the modern office: the role of the time-waster. Victorians didn’t have smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, television, radio, water coolers, March Madness brackets, koosh balls, or fidget spinners to distract them from the dull reality of their work, but they did have these gorgeously complex pieces of glass sitting within easy reach, tempting them like the sirens singing to Odysseus’s sailors. “Part of the charm and the intimacy was to hold them in your hand,” says Paul Dunlop of the Dunlop Collection, a gallery in Statesville, N.C. “You could look at a millefiore for hours. There are incredibly tiny details. You can put a whole world in a three-inch sphere.”
The French jumped to the front of the paperweight-making pack and stayed there until weights fell out of fashion in the 1860s. Almost two centuries onward, collectors prefer those made by the three leading classic-era manufacturers, all of which are French: Baccarat, St. Louis, and Clichy. “Good American weights sell for a lot of money, but the French produced a lot of tremendously good weights. In general, the record prices are still going to be French,” says Alan Kaplan of Leo Kaplan in Manhattan. “The most expensive American weight is five figures, but the record is a Clichy basket that sold for a quarter of a million dollars in 1990. Nothing else approaches it.”
While collectors of antique paperweights love all of the French brands, they love Clichy a little bit more. In its time, the company was an upstart that challenged the longer-established glassmakers Baccarat and St. Louis. It also had the shortest lifespan of the three, winking into being around 1840 and disappearing four decades later. “Clichy made fewer pieces, and their designs are distinctive,” says Smith. “Their colorations are probably a bit more sensitive and delicate.” Dunlop, who was an artist before he fell under the spell of paperweights, agrees. “Clichy is favored by about 90 percent of collectors. By far, they were the best colorists with glass. There’s a better sense of color, and a lot more color, and the range of color is amazing, from really soft pastels to indigos and dark purples.”
Most antique paperweights are meant to be viewed from the top down, and they are generally displayed that way. The Arthur Rubloff Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago is considered one of the best in the world. In 2012 the museum expanded the permanent exhibition by adding eight new wall cases that increased the number of weights on view from 341 to 800. Arranged in formations of diamonds and circles, each paperweight is held in place by a sturdy white bracket. “The mounts are quite strong. We’re very lucky to have a team that’s skilled at installing all different kinds of challenging works of art,” says Leslie Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of European decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, adding, “The paperweights are incredibly popular and a favorite among our longtime visitors.”
Heavy glass paperweights tend to survive the centuries well, though some have suffered more punishment than others. Clark recalls a tale told to him by a collector who went to India and visited a market: “He saw someone using a weight as a hammer. He picked it up, and it was a close pack millefiore Baccarat paperweight. He polished it and sold it. It had an internal crack, but it was pretty sturdy.”
The attitude toward polishing—refurbishing an antique paperweight that has suffered nicks and dings that might cloud the creation within—has shifted over time to favor the practice. “As a general rule, no one wants a weight with a lot of flaws in it. They don’t want a weight that’s chipped or scratched. Restorers can polish a weight and have it look like new,” says Feingold. “I’ve bought weights that are so scratched up I’ve got to polish them because you can’t see what’s in there. If it detracts from the design, you’ve got to pay the price and get it fixed.”
Alan Kaplan, son of the late paperweight dealer Leo Kaplan, has handled several thousand weights in his career and refrained from polishing just two: a unique and famous mid- 19th-century St. Louis example with a difficult-to-achieve overlay that resembles the pattern of gingham cloth, and a Clichy paperweight with a moss ground. Of the latter, he says, “It was the only important Clichy paperweight that was fully signed. The idea of doing anything with it… I just didn’t.” Both now belong to the Corning Museum of Glass.
The market for antique paperweights has been steady and is likely to remain so. The dealers report that it chugged ahead largely unscathed by the 2008 financial downturn, and it has not suffered the falloffs in interest that have afflicted other categories of decorative art. But it is not immune to the stratification that appears across the realms of art, antiques, and collectibles—prices for truly exceptional weights are pulling away from those of the good and the middling. “Valuable pieces are valuable because they are rare,” Dunlop says. “I can sell a valuable piece 10 times as easily as I did 30 years ago.”
And even though they are a specific product of a specific, long-gone moment in time, 19th-century paperweights still speak to us. While our Victorian forbears craved visual excitement when they looked at a well-made weight, we enjoy the chance to sit still and contemplate a magnificent work of artistry. “It goes back to their beauty, and the ability to hold them in the hand and look at them,” says Smith. “Glass still has that magic to it. It’s cool to the touch, the roundness of the form, all the things to look at—it becomes magical to people.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley