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Scientific Instruments Reach for Collectibility on the Auction Block


We live in a highly technical world, filled with all sorts of gadgets. But when people think of antiques, they naturally picture ornate Chippendale chairs and Rococo Revival sofas, Tiffany lamps and fine porcelain. Few think of scientific and technical instruments. Today, the market for these items, once used by a privileged few to further scientific and technical discoveries, is now open to everyone.

On September 9, Gray’s Auctioneers of Cleveland, Ohio, will hold an important auction of 246 different lots of scientific instruments, a large collection of which they’re selling to benefit the Case Western Reserve University’s Dayton Miller Scholarship Fund. There’s something for collectors at all economic levels and stages of collecting, from novice to veteran.

A boutique company with auctioneers licensed by the State of Ohio, Gray's holds live auctions every month which reach the world through our global online partnerships. Debra Gray and Serena Harragan, co-founded the company and are its two primary auctioneers.



Highlights include a dazzling array of instruments from two prestigious Ohio collections. One of the most important items up for bid as Lot 1 is a Tesla Coil. Estimated at $800-1,200, it’s one of the 40 tesla coils built by G.B. Schneeberger. With a suitable high voltage AC supply condenser and spark gap, this Tesla coil supposedly produced a 40-inch electrical streamer.

A Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit invented by Nikola Tesla around 1891. It’s used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating current electricity. Tesla experimented with a number of different configurations consisting of two, or sometimes three, coupled resonant electric circuits. He used these coils to conduct innovative experiments in electrical lighting phosphorescence generation, high frequency alternating current phenomena, electrotherapy, and the transmission of electrical energy without wires. Today their main use is for entertainment and educational displays.

Another important item up for auction in Lot 4 is a Holtz-Toepler Electrostatic Generator built by Central Scientific of Chicago in the late 19th/early 20th century. Used in early X-ray photography, it’s estimated to sell for $300-500. August Joseph Ignaz Toepler was a German physicist known for his experiments in electrostatics. He developed what he called the “Toepler Machine,” an electrostatic influence machine in 1865 for use in X-ray photography. Wilhelm Holtz later produced an improved version.

A Wheatstone Bridge used in the late 19th century to measure unknown electrical resistance by balancing two legs of a bridge circuit, one leg of which includes the unknown component. The primary benefit of a Wheatstone bridge is its ability to provide extremely accurate measurements. Invented by Samuel Hunter Christie in 1833 and improved and popularized by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1843, scientists first used it for soil analysis and comparison. It’s estimated to sell for $500-700. Though this one refers to Lot 72, there are several up for auction.

There are also several lots of items used in early electronic communications, including a Telegraph Pen Register with Tape Roll. By the end of the 19th century, telegraphers used pen registers to record pulsed electrical signals, and eventually they used them for recording the phone numbers dialed from a particular location. Today, sophisticated pen registers are being used for surveillance. This particular one, Lot 95, made by J.H. Bunnell & Company of Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the 20th century, has an estimated selling price of $400-600.

Jesse Bunnell, founder of J.L. Brunell and Company, a firm that manufactured telegraph equipment, was born a year before Morse's invention. He became a champion telegrapher and wartime telegraph operator. After the Civil War, he established his company in 1879 at age 35.
He received a patent on the 15th of February 1881 for his steel lever key, stamped from one piece of steel, with minor machining required. An example of this type of telegraph key from the late 20th century is Lot 98, estimated to sell for $20-40.

The auction also features a large collection of telescopes, microscopes and spectroscopes including, a large spectroscope used to measure the properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. As the most expensive item in the auction at Lot 119, this spectroscope, estimated to sell for $2,000-4,000, was made by Société Genevoise of Geneva, Switzerland at the turn of the 20th century. The name of the firm was formerly "Societe Genevoise d'Instruments de Physique", but the company referred to themselves as the "Societe Genevoise.” Founded in 1866, it manufactured many products, but particularly precision instruments.

The second most expensive item up for auction as Lot 130 is a handsome brass Zeiss Microscope, estimated to sell for $1,000-2,000. Manufactured in the early 20th century, and including slides and accessories, it came from the Peabody Museum Association and features its label. Equipped with an Abbe condenser with a swing out lower element, a triple nose piece and ungraduated draw tube, the microscope comes complete with a wooden case, four objectives—a 'K' immersion objective with connection collar, a Zeiss 'F' objective, a Bausch and Lomb 1/6 inch 0.82NA objective, and a Bausch and Lomb 2/3 inch 0.25NA objective—plus two eyepieces, three substage disk diaphragms, a camera lucida of Chevalier-Oberhausen Pattern, stage clips, a jointed substage mirror, and a wooden box of about 15 prepared slides. Albert P. Morse, curator of Natural History of the Peabody Museum from 1911-1936, originally owned it.

One of the most handsome pieces up for auction is Lot 124, a brass Laboratory Table Telescope, also made by Société Genevoise of Geneva in the late 19th Century, estimated to sell for $1,500-2,500.

Besides being used for scientific research, the Bausch and Lomb Magic Lantern projector in Lot 200A, was also used by those who could afford it for home entertainment. Estimated to sell for $200-400, it features a Model B Balopticon, complete with projection lens, condensers and carbon arc light source with bellows. And to go with projector, buyers can also bid on a collection of 'New' Old Stock Magic Lantern Slides, estimated to sell for $200-400, from the turn of the 20th century. Lot 204A consists of four packages of twelve slides measuring 2 1/8 x 6 3/4 inches with four circular images 1 7/16 inches in diameter on each slide, along with seventeen packages of slides measuring 1 9/16 x 5 15/16 inches with a variety of image formats, all in their original wrappers.

Lot 147 is a Laboratory Platform Scale, made by the Fairbanks Scales Manufacturing Company from the early 20th century, estimated to sell for $20-40. Two brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks, founded E. & T. Fairbanks Company in 1830 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Through an arrangement of levers, Thaddeus Fairbanks, a wagon maker, was able to reduce the amount of weight needed to counterbalance a load when weighing it. He applied for a patent for his first scale in 1830. By the Civil War, Fairbanks' scales were the best known American product in the world.

In 1867, Fairbanks produced 4,000 scales a month. The U.S. Post Office alone ordered 3,000 postal scales in various capacities. The company filled the order in just eight days. By 1882, E. & T. Fairbanks produced over 80,000 scales a year. By 1897, the company held 113 patents for improvements and inventions in weighing. Fairbanks offered its customers 2,000 standard model scales, yet made as many as 10,000 different models and custom systems.

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