Giving antiques a new lease on life

Terry and Kim Kovel
Pie safes like this one were a 19th-century form of food storage. Try saying "punched tin panels protected pies" 10 times fast!

Part of the fun of antiques is learning about how people lived in the past. You can often find new uses for items whose purposes have become obsolete.

This softwood cupboard with painted and punched tin panels sold for $384 at Conestoga Auctions. It's a pie safe, which is not something you would see in a kitchen today but was common in the 19th century.

The name "pie safe" may conjure up images of a locked box to keep Thanksgiving desserts out of reach, not to mention out of sight, and reduce the temptation to overindulge. In reality, they weren't that drastic; they were meant to keep out bugs, vermin and mold rather than prying fingers.

Pie safes had tin panels on the doors and sides, so mice couldn't chew their way in for an illicit treat. The panels had holes punched in them, creating ventilation to prevent mold. The holes were too small and the edges too sharp to allow bugs to fly through. Like many features of country furniture, the tin panels were both functional and decorative. The punched holes often formed a design or picture. Here, each panel has a circular pattern enhanced by a painted geometric design.

Question: When I was little, I played with dolls that originally belonged to my mother and aunt. There were early Barbies, Madame Alexander dolls, and I think a Ginny doll. I have seen similar dolls sell for high prices at auctions. The ones I had showed the kind of wear and tear you might expect from multiple generations of playing: messed-up hair, discolored spots, broken jewelry, worn paint, damaged clothes, even a missing finger! Do dolls in "played with" condition sell? Can they be repaired?

Answer: If you are planning to sell a doll, don't have it restored. Collectors will want to see its current condition, and dealers can have dolls restored for a lower price than you can. Do not restore a doll yourself if you are not a specialist. Don't repaint a doll's head; it lowers the value. Don't wash or style a vinyl doll's hair. Keep the broken jewelry and old doll clothes; accessories add value to a doll, even if they are in worn condition. There are many "doll hospitals" where professionals repair and restore antique dolls. You can find some, along with doll clubs and other resources, in the business directory. 

Q: I have a mechanical music box with a label reading, "Exposition 1878 J Phalibois Paris Pieces Mecaniques, Fantasies A Musiques." The scene depicts a farm girl feeding chickens. Her hand moves, the rabbit's head moves, the chickens move and the cat's head moves. Or, they are all supposed to move, but they need repair. There is a small music box that had a string attached to make it play. It's now detached and the music box needs a good cleaning. It's a treasured piece from my late husband's grandmother's house. I'd like to give it to my son and daughter-in-law. What can you tell me about it?

A: Jean-Marie Phalibois (1835-1900) was listed as a "cardboard maker" in an 1893 directory. He opened a shop in Paris in 1871 where he began making "le tableau mecanique" or mechanical scenes that included people or animals with moving parts. Many were made with music boxes. Mechanical scenes were made as early as the 15th century, but the "golden age" of production was in the 19th century, when many elaborate mechanical toys and dolls were made. Figures with mechanized parts are called "automatons."

Phalibois automatons were exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1878. The French words on the label on your music box translate as "Mechanical Pieces, Fantasies To Music." Jean-Marie retired in 1893 and his son, Henry, took over. The company stopped making automatons in 1925. Some automatons sell for over $1,000. Check auction sites or contact an auction house to see what your music box might sell for. If you are keeping it and want it repaired, you can find sources for music box repair in the business directory on our website,

Q: I have a 20-piece set of porcelain dinnerware from my great-grandparents from Germany. It's marked with a crown, crossed swords and the initials "R" and "C," and is stamped "Fr. Zimmermann, Breslau" on the back of each piece. What can you tell me about the maker and age of this set?

A: This crown and crossed swords mark was used by Rosenthal China. The company was founded by Philip Rosenthal in 1879. It began as a porcelain-decorating company, using blanks made by other companies. In 1891, Rosenthal opened his factory in Selb, Bavaria, Germany, and began making porcelain. The company was sold to the Waterford Wedgwood Group in 1998. It became part of the Arcturus Group in 2009.

The "Fr. Zimmermann, Breslau" stamp is the decorator's mark. Breslau became Wroclaw, Poland, after World War II. Variations of this Rosenthal mark were used from 1898 to 1906. The marks indicate that the china was sold in Germany and not meant for export to the U.S. The country of origin had to be listed on goods coming into the U.S. after the passage of the McKinley Act of 1891.

TIP: When clearing the table, don't stack dirty silver and dirty dishes together. The weight of the dishes may bend the silverware. 

Current Prices

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.

Print, scene from Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, pictures giant turkey float, figural balloons, parade goers, muted colors, Melanie Taylor Kent, 1983, frame, 35 x 27 ½ inches, $40.

Doll, Betsy McCall, hard plastic, sleep eyes, molded lashes, saran wig in original set, jointed arms and legs, red dress, blue dress, shoes, socks, box, 8 inches, $160.

Moser compote, ruby glass, enameled acanthus scrolls in shaped medallions, fruit swag border, beaded trim, gilt, clear stem, floral band on foot, 3 x 8 ½ inches, $275.

Flow blue dinner plates, turkey scene on center, continuous leaf and flower border, blue and white, scalloped rim, John Ridgeway, England, c. 1890, 10 inches, six pieces, $400.

Candy container, turkey, composition, handpainted, lead wire feet, removable head, Germany, 7 inches, $625.

Advertising, sign, Michelin, single sided porcelain, pictures Bibendum mascot on stylized bicycle, looking left, arm in air, orange, yellow, white and black, die cut with five sides, 20 x 15 inches, $765.

Watch, Lady Waltham, Model 1900, hunting case, 14K yellow gold, engraved scrolls and monogram, porcelain dial with Arabic numerals, red outer minute track, 15-jewel, stem wind, ladies' size "0," 34 mm, $810.

Furniture, chair, Z, Poul Jensen for Selig, teak, seven slats on back, webbed seat, angular arms and legs, orange back and seat cushions, Denmark, 26 x 29 x 30 inches, $1,140.

Sports, boxing, pair of trunks, signed by Muhammad Ali, shiny white fabric, black trim, Everlast label on front outside band, sold with letter of authentication, $1,750.

Jewelry, necklace, sterling silver, crescent shape collar, with smaller crescent shape pendant, joined by quartz cabochon in silver bezel, Art Smith, 13 inches diameter, $2,500.