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Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Posted by flyleft (My Page) on
Mon, Feb 15, 10 at 17:37

It's so dear, shaped so nicely, rings like a bell...but it's losing its inlay in several places...is it worthless? The only thing resembling maker's marks are on opposite sides of the bottom (see pic) -- they just look like rectangles that have been smushed over the years...any thoughts? There's no writing under the price tag, btw, despite what it looks like in the pics. It's hair. Sorry. I could take it over but I thought I'd get this posted and didn't realize what it looked like until seeing it in this preview. Can't find anything that looks similar searching under bronze inlay cup, bronze enamel cup, vintage bronze cup, antique bronze cup, antique bronze footed -- what am I missing? Researching these little things is honing my skills, and I really appreciate the help in my learning. TIA!

(oh, still no word on Little Yurito...and no progress on those red/yellow/blue plates/cups--I have to wait on Yurito, but I'm still trying myself on the ceramics)
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Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Try Googling Champleve Cloissone...


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Thanks, sweeby. I should have mentioned--I'd tried cloisonne already, and now champleve, and I'm still seeing only multi-colored pieces like the ones I inherited from my mom :). This seems different...?


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner? ps

I should say, though, that the champleve technique does seem closer, like that's what this is vs. the chinese cloisonne of my mom's lamps, but this is only in black. But the word definitely helps.


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner? pps

Could the term "niello" have anything to do with this piece? I see it's black, but I can't get close-up enough photos on the web to compare other pieces with this one.


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner? MORE

Hm...now I've found a Russian piece, which would make sense. I've found some rather odd Russian pieces here (lot of Russian immigrants in this area)...

Here is a link that might be useful: russian silver and Niello--most similar pattern so far


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Sorry - Had to run last night... Yes, almost all of the Champleve work I've seen has been multi-colored as well. Almost all.

The Niello possibility seems interesting, as is the possible Russian connection.

I'm curious to see what else turns up...


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

No advice (except try to sell it as a piece of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark III" set?). It's kind of charming, isn't it?

Are you sure it's bronze and not brass? Not sure brass would help your googling but it looks brassy. :) I have a bell with a similar enameling method, but not as deep, that is brass and Chinese. Yours really doesn't look Chinese, of course.

Even if it's lost value with the missing bits, it would sure be easy to do a cosmetic fix with some black putty/wax/crayon if one just wanted it for display. Or for one's Raiders collection. Looks more Biblical with the aged look, though.

Not helpful, but I like your grail!


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Ha, sweeby--I was having quite the virtual conversation with you :) The niello trail didn't lead any further. There's an antiques show coming here in March I am collecting things to take to have evaluated (cost is something like $5); this little thing may make the team :)

fori, LOL--yes, a grail, that's the shape! Not as big as The Grail, but maybe an unholy one? :) I know I shouldn't polish it, but I wonder if I could clean it somehow. Does your bell have a nice deep ring? This does. It's heavy, too. I don't know, it just instinctively says bronze to me because of the quality of the ring rather than brass, and the look of the metal in the concave underside of the stem. Could be brass, though, I guess.


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Is what fills the openings, or the ones falling out, kind of powdery? Real niello is a powdery alloy of several different metals when it is put in. Kind of like the old silver fillings your dentist used, mixed up, pushed in and burnished with pressure. Although it looks black, that is just what those metals look like when combined.

Here is an article on it:

"The Niello technique, nowadays almost forgotten, is one of the oldest ornamenting techniques in the world. Niello itself is a black metallic alloy of copper, silver, lead, and sulphur. Variety in hardness, pliancy, and colour can be obtained by using different amounts of the ingredients.

The word niello comes from the Latin nigellum meaning black. In the 16th century Giorgio Vasari gives in his work the Vite (The Lives) his version of Niello, although he fails to include copper and sulphur as primary ingredients. As Benvenuto Cellini mentions, this may show his superficial interest in the matter. A formula by Cellini himself read "an ounce of silver, two ounces of copper and three of lead". The proportion of silver, copper, lead, and sulphur could be varied as long as the melting process was easy.

In Niello technique the metal is first engraved with a burin, after which the hollows are filled with the niello alloy. The resulting design is also called a niello. Gold, copper, and silver can be used as metals. Silver allows the best contrast between colours, which emphasises the gap between the surface and the engraving."

Old niello was expensive and labor intensive, though. Few are doing it in this country now because it is hazardous. The best niello used mercury in the alloy too. Niello workers used to die young from slowly being poisoned by the fumes of heating the alloy and bending over the work.
It was used for silver and gold but I have never seen the real thing used on brass or bronze. (Research on Niello was part of a Masters paper I did on ancient metalworking techniques.) The Russian piece (the bow-shape) linked above is not niello: as niello cant be applied to a surface. It needs a cut out portion, even undercut, to hold the powder.

If it is enamel (which is fused glass) it will be brittle and it might chip out. But as said above, to do the enamel in just black is kind of unusual. It might instead be some kind of resin.


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

linnea, linnea, linnea--now *that's* why I love g'web! I just don't know anyone IRL who did a Master's paper on ancient metalworking techniques :)

So guess what, I'd been wondering what could have happened to the enamel to make it fall out like powder when I took the price tag off the side (Goodwill people always put tags on very vulnerable places on delicate items--it's like a rule or something). I thought "that's odd, why is it powdery? Is it really old?" But you've explained it. It is definitely powdery; in fact, I could photograph the back of the tag so you could see it..should I do that?

But then your question, why bronze and niello? You can see the cut outs in my piece that hold the filling, so it's different from that Russian piece in that way, if you say the Russian piece isn't indented.

Would it help to photo the price tag detritus? I *so* appreciate your expert help on this piece.


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RE: Is this sweet little bronze guy a goner?

Sure, go ahead. Im not sure if that will tell me anything, though. As for what would make the niello fall outwell.I have not seen any damaged niello. The museum pieces I saw (under glass) while doing my research were intact. No one let me handle anything, LOL. The student samples I did handle were new. Thermal shock can make enamel fall out. Though enamel is fired, uneven heat (like pouring hot tea into a champleve cup made for display, not use) can expand the cells and make the enamel crack. Maybe not the first time, but its a bad idea. So thermal shock could make niello fall out too, though it would be less likely because expansion of metals is not the same as glass.

Your cup does not look like anyone would try drinking hot liquids in it, though. And its still brass, making it less likely that it is niello at all. Niello being so labor intensive, niello-look imitations have been made for centuries. Its more likely a resin. If modern, possibly a synthetic resin. (The synthetic resins would be urethanes or epoxies. I see a lot of fake enamel jewelry that is not fired glass enamel, but epoxy resin. I used to enamel a lot so its not hard to tell apart. I dont think that applies to your piece, though.)

Its more likely an organic resin. Pitch could have been used. Pitch when fresh would be nice and black. It can be intermixed with a powder or granules to give it body while filling up the wells. I think I do see lighter colored granules in your pictures. You would not see that in niello. Niello is an alloy made from several METALS so is consistent. Alloys are not the same as mixtures, the metals bind to each other chemically and create in essence a new metal. It would not be grainy any more than brass or steel (also alloys) are grainy.

I use pitch myself (not for niello-look or for decoration, just to support metalwork being or repouseed). I have bought large silver beads made in Thailand that are filled with pitch to support the paper-thin silver while it is worked and give it weight. Its not done to deceive, but is a very traditional and useful metal working technique, still used today.

But give it time and exposure to moisture and pitch is going to degrade. Pitch can fall out in chunks or turn to powder. If the cup was cleaned with something harsh when someone tried to polish up the brass part, that too could make pitch degrade.


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