Trompe l'oeil artwork has been "fooling the eyes" for ages

Terry Kovel
It's no trick: Fornasetti's trompe l'oeil screen, estimated at $7,000 to $10,000 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions in Florida, brought $9,100.

The term "trompe l'oeil," meaning "fool the eye," is an art style that was popular in the 19th century. By then, artists and audiences had enjoyed optical illusions for thousands of years. The original trompe l'oeil style dates back much further. 

An ancient Greek story tells of the legendary painter Zeuxis, whose still-life paintings were so realistic that birds would fly down to peck the grapes. Another painter, Parrhasius, challenged him to a contest and showed him a painting covered by curtains. When Zeuxis tried to pull the curtains back, he realized that they were, in fact, part of the painting! This made Parrhasius the winner of the contest.  

The set of shelves shown here looks like it is filled with books and figures, but it's a trompe l'oeil screen! The shelves and their contents are printed on wood panels. It's a creation by Piero Fornasetti, an Italian designer who worked from 1935 to the 1980s.

He brought his skill and sense of humor to furniture, ceramics and more. His work often included optical illusions or realistically detailed images in surreal compositions. The screen sold for $9,100 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions in Florida.

Question: I'd like information on an original December 1944 playbill from Glenn Miller's last appearance before his fatal plane crash. What do you think it might be worth? 

Answer: Glenn Miller (1904-1944) was a trombone player, composer and music arranger who formed his first orchestra in 1937. He formed a new orchestra in 1938 that included several members of the original group. It became the most popular dance band in the world.

Miller joined the military and led the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, which was stationed in England from 1942 to 1944. The band played at bases around the country and on BBC radio broadcasts. Its last civilian concert was in September 1942. The last appearance of the band at an air base was in October 1944. The band's last radio broadcast was December 12, 1944, three days before Miller's plane disappeared on a flight to Paris.

The date and place of your playbill determine the value. Most playbills sell for $10 or less. If it's autographed by the performer, it could go for more. If it is the last performance, it will be more, depending on condition.

Q: We found a painted bench at an antique shop that was in excellent condition except for a piece of chewing gum stuck under the seat. What is a good way to remove gum without damaging the furniture?

A: Place an ice cube in a plastic bag and hold it against the gum. After the gum freezes solid, use a plastic credit card or spatula to scrape it off. You can hit large pieces with a hammer to break them off. Remove any sticky traces with lemon juice. Avoid using commercial solvents. They can damage antique furniture.

Q: I would like to know what this tiny stone box is. It smells really good inside. The stone looks like marble, but it has tiny, indented openings on each side and the lid is unusual. I haven't seen anything quite like it and would love to know more.

A: This style of marble trinket box with floral mother-of-pearl inlay was commonly made in India in the 1970s. The quatrefoil carvings are another common design element in this type of box. The scent is most likely from a previous owner who may have stored incense in the box. The value of comparable boxes is $20 to $30.

Q: When we were clearing out my parents' attic, I found a two-arm lamp from the 1950s. It has white hobnail glass shades and a long brass pole between the lights with a loop at the top. I remember seeing it in our living room for the longest time. Is it collectible? 

A: Styles like your lamp with brass bases and glass hobnail (raised bumps) or ribbed shades were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Mid-century style is currently popular, as is the streamlined modern look of designers like the Eames husband-and-wife team and Harry Bertoia. Vintage lamps like yours in good condition are found in many antique stores and flea markets. Price depends on condition and size. 

TIP: Be very careful when using glue or other sticky products. If old glue, paste, scotch tape or even stick-on notes are left on paper items, stains will eventually appear. Most cannot be removed.

Terry Kovel and Kim Kovel answer readers' questions sent to the column. Send a letter with one question describing the size, material (glass, pottery) and what you know about the item. Include only two pictures, the object and a closeup of any marks or damage. Be sure your name and return address are included. Write to Kovels, (Name of this newspaper), King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803 or email us at


Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions. 

Jewelry, necklace and bracelet, faux golden pearl, two-strand necklace, gold tone clasp, four-strand bracelet, stretches, marked, KJL, Kenneth Jay Lane, necklace 34 inches, bracelet 4 inches, $25.

Coca-Cola toy, trailer, die-cast metal, red, white lettering, It's The Real Thing, pallets with green bottles, Buddy L, box, 1976, $50.

Vase, satin glass, cased, orange to white, allover gilt coral branchwork, shouldered, swollen neck, marked, Thomas Webb & Sons, 9 x 4 ¾ inches, $100.

Purse, art nouveau style, silver mesh, ring shape, silver frame, curving shape, hammered finish, three keshi pearls, chatelaine style belt hook, chain strap, c. 1900, 10 x 4 ½ inches, $300.

Patent model, ice skate, wood, hinged footbed, retractable blade, inscribed, Dec. 1867, 7 ½ inches, $325.

Chinese Export plate, porcelain, multicolor, center still life, flowers and branches in vases, blue rim, four white panels with birds on branches, alternating with red medallions, 19th century, 9 ½ inches, $375.

Copper vase, Glasgow School, square base, hammered ground, large stylized repousse flower on each side, closed handles at corners, ruffled rim, Arts & Crafts, 6 ½ x 2 ¾ inches, $500.

Fire screen, pine board, cutout, urn with flowers, painted, multicolor, molded rectangular base, Continental, 19th century, 43 x 30 x 9 inches, $720.

Furniture, bar cart, George Nelson & Associates, Model 5099, aluminum, walnut, white laminate, drawer with cutlery tray, caster wheels, Herman Miller, 31 ½ x 29 ½ x 18 inches. $940.

Jewelry, pin, figural, cat, blue green cabochon head and body, 18K gold ears and tail, white gold whiskers, blue faceted stone eyes, marked, Cartier, Italy, 1 ½ x ¾ inches, $1,280.