The Smart Collector

AUCTION ACTION: An iron samurai warrior helmet that brought $377,000 in a recent “Arts of the Samurai” auction at Bonham’s New York is called kawari kubuto, or “eccentrically shaped helmet.” Shaped like a conch shell after the traditional samurai battle call made by blowing into a conch shell, the Edo period (18th C.) helmet is an outstanding example of both design and craftsmanship. In the same sale, an orange and purple laced haramaki, or chest armor, along with helmet sold for more than $341,000. — Credit: Bonhams


Q: My husband found this while relic hunting. Can you ID it? It was found near Civil War, Revolutionary War and similar items.

A: I’m thinking that our reader lives somewhere in the eastern part of the U.S. or the Southeast, near early battlefields. Far from being static shrines to early battles for independence, most are national sites and locations for historic re-enactments. When we looked, a federal shutdown meant that National Park Service web sites on such locations were down. Be sure to check them after they are restored.

Thanks to a clear image sent, we invite readers to think of a metal rectangle about 9 inches by 4 inches with an elongated top surmounted with a circle for hanging from a belt or wall. The metal looks like tin or a white metal alloy. The bottom end has a half-oval cutout. The entire top surface has a simple decorative design of leaves.

Perhaps by now smart collectors recognize that the reader’s find is a bootjack. Jacks are tools to remove a boot. The U-shaped opening grips the boot heel, while the user stands on the flat area with the opposing foot to pull the foot from the boot. The process is repeated for the second boot.

The advantage goes beyond using leverage to remove a recalcitrant boot; a jack means that the user doesn’t have to bend over or handle a dirty boot. Ingenious tools, those boot jacks!

Jacks have existed as long as boots. Some are whimsical, such as a snail where the antennae grip the boot. Perhaps the most known shape is a figural “Naughty Nellie,” where a woman’s legs grip.

A look on shows sale results for old bootjacks made of wood, cast iron, and alloys in the shape of crickets, bugs, liveried servants, women, pistols, trivets and more. There are reproductions (especially Nellie), and collectors need to be smart about buying.

The reader’s find belonged, I suspect, to a hunter, a re-enactor, or simply to someone wearing boots. It is recent and basic, and not collectible.

Q: This vase has been in my family for a very long time. Can you tell me about it?

A: We don’t have any info on size, but images sent show an urn-shaped vase perhaps about 8-12 inches high with decorative scrolled handles. The bottom stamp is “Made in Japan” with a floral cartouche. The vase is probably porcelain, but it could be bisque. It needs to be handled to know for sure.

My thinking, based on the look and the mark, is that this is a generic product churned out by Japanese factories in the late 1800s-early 1900s for export. At that time, a growing middle class was absolutely in love with all things Oriental. The Far East was opening up to the West and every bourgeois household had to have something that screamed Oriental. Boatloads of porcelains came to the U.S. that way.

The very best of those porcelains were finely hand-painted. Because so much entered the country and is still around, and because the market is cyclical and we’re in a down phase, prices realized today don’t reflect the fine workmanship involved.

The reader’s vase is attractive and seems to be old but in good condition. The florals are hand painted over decals (overpainting). Handpainted gold decoration is intact, as is moriage detail. Moriage is a hand method of laying ceramic clay in a bead pattern before firing. Once painted, often with gold, the fired beads are accents.

The vase was originally sold as a quality product, perhaps a wedding gift. Checking, we see auction results of around $100 for similar vases.

BOOK IT! “Farmhouse Modern” by Terry John Woods (Abrams, $45) isn’t about shabby chic; Wood’s vision is about using rustic or found objects in a mix and match for today. Go ahead; put that 1930s gooseneck lamp on a midcentury table. Put the vintage toy on a twig table in a white room. His vision is all about using the old in a look that is fresh. Smart collectors know that’s what collecting is all about today!

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to