Everyone has seen mercury glass the last several years, because Pottery Barn has been cranking it out like crazy, especially around the holidays. But vintage mercury glass from the Victorian-era is something that warrants your attention, and that's what I want to focus on today. It's much more interesting than the stuff that's being made in China, but that's no surprise, is it?
My picker recently scored a box full of of gorgeous antique mercury glass at an auction. Just look at the array of shapes and sizes! I feel like I've won the lottery!
Mercury glass was originally created as a replacement for sterling silver. In fact, it was sometimes called "poor man's silver". It could be made cheaply, by blowing double-walled glass and coating the interior walls of the glass with a metallic coating (not actual mercury) to give it the silver appearance. The opening at the bottom, called a "pontil", was sealed with wax or a cork to prevent air from attacking the silver coating.
More often than not, the seal at the bottom will be missing, and the silver will have started to corrode. Because of this, you shouldn't submerge a piece of mercury glass in water:
The most common forms of mercury glass are vases, candle holders, curtain tie-backs, salt dips, gazing balls for the garden, and compotes. Not all mercury glass is silver. I've seen examples tinted gold, pink, green, and blue, but silver is the most common. Many of the silver vases, urns and compotes will have a golden interior.
The decoration on the outside is often quite stunning. Typically, there is a cold painted decoration or delicate frosted motif, often with natural themes that were popular during Victorian times.
Besides the painted details, I love the elaborate silhouettes the vases make:
How can you tell if a mercury glass item is old or new? If it is single-walled, like the votive holders below, you can be sure it's new. These are for sale all over eBay, and the chain stores like Pottery Barn:
The piece below is double-walled and is also offered on eBay. It's described as "Antiqued Mercury Glass", not "Antique". It's a fine point, but one that should be noted. It's pretty darn cute, I have to admit.....
One thing I noticed about the piece above is the uniformity of the aging. The speckles are spread out all over the piece. The old mercury glass doesn't age in this manner. The silvering will usually disappear from the base first, then work its way upwards.
Another way to tell if mercury glass is old or new is to look at the shape. Old glass is hand blown. New glass is either blown-molded or just molded, and will be very uniformly shaped. Look how wonky this older glass is:
One more tip: I've noticed the new candle holders have a metal insert to hold the candles. I haven't seen an old example with a metal insert, so I would be suspicious of any "old" candle holder with that feature.
And now for pricing. A couple years ago, a price guide was published and mercury glass values shot up. It was selling like hotcakes, and it's been really hard for me to keep in stock at the antique malls. I usually price a 10" vase around $100, a 5" vase about $50, and so on. A rare color, like pink, would be more expensive. Many of the vases and candle holders were created in pairs, so if you have an actual matching pair that's something special. Prices on the East and West coast would most likely be more. Michigan is where you get the bargains, folks!
I hope you can add some authentic 130-year old mercury glass to your collection some day if you haven't already. It's a true treasure with an interesting history that will only increase in value over time.