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Porcelain once was more precious

Gold is selling for very high prices today, but porcelain was more precious than gold in 17th-century Europe.

Thin white porcelain was first made in China in the 10th century, but it wasn't seen in Europe until 1260, when some pieces were brought back by Marco Polo.

It was treasured as a rarity and valued like gold, but Europeans couldn't figure out how it was made.

In 1700, Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony (Germany), heard that Johann Bottger, an 18-year-old German, was trying to make gold from base metals. Augustus kept Bottger a prisoner in Dresden to make gold.

At the same time, another scientist with the long name Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was working to discover the secret of the other treasure, porcelain.

Tschirnhaus and Bottger were told to work together, and porcelain was finally created in 1713.

Augustus was pleased and built a royal porcelain factory in the city of Meissen. But the secret of porcelain was out, and it soon was made in many countries.

For centuries, Bottger was credited with the discovery of porcelain, but now research suggests it was really Tschirnhaus.

Many types of ceramics — majolica, stoneware, bone china, ironstone and pottery — were soon being used in households for tasks such as cooking and storing. Decorations included ceramic figurines and tiles.

It is not surprising that artists sometimes pay homage to ceramics in the designs they create on ceramics.

Well-known designs include a famous Chinese pattern picturing urns and vases, a Japanese Satsuma lidded jar picturing Asian ceramics from many different centuries, and English and American dinnerware sets decorated with examples of 1950s dishes.

Q: A few years ago, I bought a 27-inch round mahogany side table at a local antiques shop. It stands on four square tapered legs and has a fluted set of four drawers all around it. Only one of the drawers is real. The other three are false drawers. There's a metal label inside the real drawer that reads "Kittinger Authentic Handmade." Please tell me its history and value.

A: Kittinger Furniture Co. has been in business in Buffalo, N.Y., since 1866. It has a reputation for making high-quality furniture in traditional styles. If you bought your table "a few years ago," it's worth about 20 percent less than what you paid then. Prices for many vintage furniture pieces have not gone up in the past few years. We have seen tables like yours selling for $200 to $500. Older pieces in excellent condition sell for a little less.

Q: I would like information about a liquor decanter I was given about 20 years ago. It's in the shape of a sailboat. The bottom of the decanter is marked "Famous Firsts, Edition No. 5, 1851 Yacht America, 1970, R.E.M. Originals." Is it valuable?

A: Famous Firsts Ltd. of Port Chester, N.Y., made limited-edition figural liquor decanters from 1968 until 1985. The initials on the bottom of your bottle are those of Richard E. Magid, the owner of Famous Firsts. The designs were based on "famous firsts," like the first yacht race. In 1851, the yacht America won the first race between the United States and England in what became known as the America's Cup. The name honors the winner of the first race. Other Famous Firsts decanters include famous cars, planes, ships, phonographs, sewing machines and telephones. Your decanter sold for $50 when it was new. The value of figural ceramic liquor bottles has plummeted, though, and it's worth about $25 or less today.

Q: We have a porcelain plate, approximately 17 inches in diameter, that has a hand-painted scene of trees and of ducks swimming in a pond. The bottom is marked "LM & Cie Montereau." The plate has been in our family for about 70 years. Can you tell us who made it?

A: The "LM & Cie" mark was used by Leboeuf, Milliet & Co. of Creil and Montereau, France. The company was founded in 1841 by Louis Martin Leboeuf (1792-1854) and Jean Baptiste Gratien Milliet (1797-1875) and was in business until 1895.

Q: I have a metal Coca-Cola sign that I'm curious about. It's shaped like a bottle, 37 inches high and 11 1/2 inches wide. On the bottle are the words "Trade Mark Registered, Bottle Pat'd Dec. 25, 1923." On the bottom of the bottle it says "Made in U.S.A., American Art Works Inc., Coshocton, Ohio."

A: The patent issued on Dec. 25, 1923, was for the contoured shape of the bottle. This was a renewal of a 1912 patent for the shape, which is sometimes called a "hobbleskirt" because it's the shape of a woman in a hobbleskirt. Bottles with this patent are sometimes called "Christmas bottles." American Art Works was in business in Coshocton from 1909 to 1950. The company made blotters, calendars, fans, signs, trays and other advertising items for various companies. The sign must have been used in the 1930s and '40s.

Q: I have a Konwal lighter with "Operations Directorate" on the cap and a "Joint Chiefs of Staff" emblem on the body. It is 4 inches high. I would appreciate any information you can tell me about it.

A: Konwal is a company in Japan that made lighters with military insignia in the 1950s and '60s. The insignias were glued on. Prices for Konwal lighters today range from $10 to $80. Lighters with etched military symbols were made by Zippo Manufacturing Co. Zippo made lighters exclusively for the military during World War II, and millions of lighters were issued to military personnel. Prices for Zippo military lighters start at $15 and go up from there.

Tip: Never store photographs with rubber bands or paper clips. Store photos in acid-free boxes or envelopes, available at specialty stores and through mail-order catalogs.