Chalk it up to Kitsch

Sculpture, in the world of antiques, is such a vast topic. It would be impossible to give a reasonable overview of vintage and antique sculpture in a single ELF article, but I thought I might chip away at it a bit while keeping my scope to sculpture that is within reach of the average vintage buyer.

The average home typically has some type of sculpture in its décor scheme… whether it’s a child’s own clay creation of the Cookie Monster or a lamp base with some sort of romantic figures in embrace. Or maybe it’s an abstract obelisk that sits on a bookshelf or is mounted on the wall.

I was looking at one of my favorite online auction sites the other day and two busts of children were on the block; they are a prime example of what’s known as chalkware. Chalkware is basically exactly what it sounds like — cast from plaster of Paris (most frequently) or sometimes ground gypsum, the most familiar examples of chalkware come from the mid-century modern period of the 1940s through 1960s.

According to Wikipedia, though, chalkware has been around since the late 18th century as an inexpensive way to create figurines or re-create famous classical works of art. The mid-century period of chalkware was extremely productive and you can find it just about anywhere. I personally admire the classic reproductions. In fact, as I write this article in my dining room, I’ve got a bust of Hermes staring down at me from a large bookcase that holds serving pieces and cookbooks. He’s about 18 inches tall, was originally white but at some point was painted solid black. Some of the black paint has chipped off his wavy hair and the nooks and crannies of that hair is also a great dust collector.

Fanciful figurines are probably the most common and easily found examples of chalkware. From those lady head vases whose hats made a handy spot to drop some posies in to cute little animals and children in various poses, you’ll know chalkware when you see it. Before stuffed animals became common fair prizes, there was what’s known as carnival chalk. Heavy because it’s made of plaster, it’s still not as heavy as a carved marble or even concrete piece. It’s most often painted in vibrant colors to match its whimsical nature and usually has a matte finish. I’m not sure why this is but you rarely see any glossy glaze like you’d see on later ceramics. High shine glazes are much more durable but the matte finish paint on chalkware is extremely fragile. Mid-century pieces usually have a few chips in their paint on them but that’s ok. Vintage isn’t meant to be perfect, right?

So, I wound up winning the pair of child busts from that online auction and it turns out they are a prime example from that mid-century period. They were manufactured by the Alexander Backer Company, also known as ABCO. This U.S. company cranked out a ton of pieces in the mid-20th century and a search on Etsy or eBay will turn up hundreds of them.

Now, according to Wiki, rare chalkware pieces can fetch thousands of dollars but I don’t see many priced even above $100. They’re mostly in the $20 to s$30 range. The pair I won sold for only $10 plus auction fees and they’re good-sized at 16 inches tall. They’ve got the Backer logo mark on the bottom and appear to have been signed, probably by the artist who painted them. I don’t happen to find the ivory and dusty gold color all that appealing, and I think they’d look better in a flat pure white so I might paint them before trying to sell them at Twin Elm Farm. It will give them a more serious look… at least in my mind. Yes, I know I’ll be wrecking their antique value but at $10 and the fact that I saw a whole bunch more of these very same plaster children for sale on eBay, I don’t think I’d be taking away too much from our cultural heritage.

One final little funny note while trying to research the Backer company: I found the transcript of a U.S. copyright lawsuit against Alexander Backer. Apparently, a staff artist from a commercial sculpture company was commissioned by Backer to reproduce a version of “American Harvesters” by the husband-and-wife artist duo behind Americana Designs that would be slightly different so as not to violate copyright laws. Well, it did and Mr. Backer was found guilty in a jury trial and probably had to compensate with a nice chunk of change. He went on to appeal the conviction so I’m not sure where that wound up, but Alexander certainly should have known better!