To have vintage enamel signs in your home is to have an automatic conversation starter with people who know little about them, but where can these genuine signs be found and what should you look out for when buying? Our guide will help you negotiate the world of vintage signs and show you what to look for when considering antique signs for sale.
What are vintage enamel signs?
Vintage enamel signs date back to the 1800s when they were used to advertise anything from petrol, services and food. They were usually found on the sides of buildings, outside shops, on railway station platforms and on public transport like trams.
Enamel signs are made from vitreous enamel (also known as porcelain enamel), and the first purpose-built factory for the production of signs was the Patent Enamel Company, founded in Selly Oak, Birmingham in 1889 by Benjamin Baugh.
What to look for in a vintage enamel sign
Today, there are many reproduction enamel signs available which, to the novice, are hard to distinguish from a truly vintage piece. Sadly also, there are unscrupulous traders who will try and pass a modern reproduction piece off as an original. But there are things to look out for!
Turn it over – Reproduction enamel signs have very bland backs with no enamel overspill from the work on the front. Original signs tend to have lots of overspill on the back; sometimes you can even see finger lines from the gloves. This is a fall prove way to tell and a technique we use every time we buy.
Double sided signs – The people reproducing signs do not seem to do double sided signs as often as single sided.
Wall mounted double sided flanged signs – Do not appear to be being reproduced.
Chips – a vintage enamel sign will typically have chips to the surface throughout the piece and the chips will reveal layered enamel round the edges. Reproductions are often computer generated and will often have ‘chips’ around the edges only, with no layers as the enamel has not been baked on layer by layer.
Rust – Computer generated, modern reproductions will have artificial rust which is an orange-red in colour, whereas a vintage enamel sign will show rust which is more black-brown in appearance. Again, this is because it is impossible to reproduce original production techniques.
Rivets – a genuine vintage enamel sign will have rivets that will be old, tarnished and even rusty. Reproduction signs, by comparison, will have much newer looking rivets.
Which vintage enamel signs are most collectable?
Vintage enamel signs are categorized according to subject and collectors will choose either to specialize in one area, e.g. petrol signs, or collect from a specific era, e.g. the 1950s. The most popular categories of vintage enamel signs for collectors are tobacco, beer, food, motoring products and petrol. As vintage enamel signs become rarer with each passing year, collectors are always on the lookout for the pieces that were originally produced in smaller numbers, have strong, bold colours, with limited to no dents and rust. If you are lucky enough to stumble across such an example, do not walk away from it as its value could be tremendous.
Where to buy vintage enamel signs
Once you know what you are looking for when purchasing vintage enamel signs, it’s important that you source them from reputable dealers. Of course, you may chance upon a gem in a charity shop or at a car boot sale, but at Elsie Wolfe Wondrous Antiques, we are experts in this field.
In 2005, a world record price was set at auction in England, for early 20th century enamel sign advertising BP petrol. Thought to have been one of only 15 of its type in existence at the time, the sign was in superb condition with chipping only around the original fixing holes. The sign, which featured a racing car crossing the finishing line, created a bidding war between two interested parties and eventually sold for an incredible £28,000!
In more recent times September 8th 2020 a sale in Europe had an enamel sign featuring a cruise liner in a very art deco style which sold for $260,000 Euros. Yep that’s right.
The Rotterdamsche Lloyd sign , designed by Johann von Stein (NL, 1896 - 1965), and produced at Langcat Bussum (Holland) somewhere between 1929 and 1933.
See the sign here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrG9GvHNYMk
Thank you for reading.