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Antiques by Terry Kovel: Antique napkin rings were fashionable

Antique napkin rings are used today as part of the new “green” movement. The cloth napkin used at dinner, if almost clean, can be carefully folded, rolled up and saved in the napkin ring. It saves soap, water and the energy needed to launder it after each meal. The idea is not new. It probably started in 19th century France. Plain wood, porcelain or metal rings were used in the 1800s, but the figural napkin ring was the height of fashion from 1869 to about 1900. At first, porcelain rings were decorated with colored glazes or the silver was engraved with a name or design. But technology made it possible to plate a pewterlike metal and make an inexpensive napkin ring that looked like expensive sterling silver examples. Today, it is the silver-plated figural ring that attracts the collector and the high prices. Hundreds of designs were made by silver-plate manufacturers in America. They are like small sculptures. Realistic figures of people, animals, birds, plants or mythological and literary characters often in scenes with familiar objects held the rings. Kate Greenaway-type boys and girls are among the favorites. Sometimes a horse or donkey was designed to pull the napkin ring in a cart. Some figural rings also included a bud vase to hold flowers or even a bell to ring for a servant. A recent auction featured a Kate Greenaway-type boy sitting in a chair and reading a book. To add to the value, there also was a girl standing behind the chair. And another price plus was a maker’s mark for Simpson, Hall, Miller & Co. It was no surprise when the auction price was $889. Be careful if you want to buy figural rings. Many copies have been made in recent years.

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Q: I have five figurines that are at least 50 years old and have paper labels that read “Josef Original California.” Do they have any value or are they just plaster?

A: Josef Originals was started by Muriel Joseph Georges, who began designing and making ceramic figurines in the basement of her home in California in 1945. When Muriel ordered labels for her figurines they came back with “Joseph” misspelled as “Josef,” and that became part of the company name. Production moved to Japan in 1962. The company was sold in 1982. The new owner continued to make Josef Originals figurines designed by Muriel until 1985, when the company was sold again. The figurines are no longer being made. Those made in California are worth more than the later ones made in Japan. The value of your figurines: $15 to $55.

Write to the Kovels at King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.