May 26, 2018
Living Latest News | Poll Questions | Memorial Day | Bangor Day Trips | Center for Wildlife

Fine cast iron toys can bring top dollar

Photo courtesy of | Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of | Photo courtesy of
The sleigh with walking horse is a very rare cast iron toy by Ives. It sold for $86,250 this spring at Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey.
By Danielle Arnet, Tribune Media Services

Q: We inherited about three-dozen mustache cups from our mother, who collected them for many years. There seems to be little interest online. Are the cups too specialized? We took some to an appraisal event, but the expert there talked about barbershop shaving mugs, which left us really confused. Can you fill us in?

A: First, we need to clue readers to what a mustache cup is. Imagine a coffee or teacup with a bridge of the same material spanning the lip, east-west. That’s where a Victorian gentleman’s mustache rested as he drank his coffee or tea. Sort of a mustache cozy, if you will.

Mustache cups mattered back when facial hair was standard for many men. Dates span the Victorian era to about WWI. Once the clean-shaven look came into vogue, mustache cups became a curiosity.

Today, the cups are popular collectibles. Are they too specialized? Nah. Mustache cup collecting, like many collecting interests, is cyclical. But there are always core collectors.

They were made in every fashion that cups were made. Some are pottery, others are fine china with lots of gold. In the days when silver plate cups and saucers were a novelty, they were made as mustache cups, as well.

Many cups are larger size, to accommodate a gent’s face. Yet those from fine china makers such as Royal Bayreuth can be incongruously delicate.

Barbershop shaving mugs are totally different. First off, they lack the bridge.

During the same period that mustache cups were made, men commonly kept personal shaving mugs at their neighborhood barbershop. That way they’d always be on hand for their daily shave.

A traditional short mug with a handle, shaving mugs usually sported the customer’s name in gold along with a personalized decoration on the front. If the customer fancied trains or was a conductor, his mug showed both his name and a hand-painted train or streetcar on the front. A Mason might feature his degree on his mug, a hat maker a bowler, a butcher a steer, etc.

It’s those decorations that make shaving mugs fascinating collectibles. While a mustache cup collector might hunt for examples by differing makers or in varied materials, mug collectors look for occupations.

I’m wondering if what you took for appraisal were shaving mugs instead of mustache cups. That would explain the appraiser’s comments.

See if your library has “The Shaving Mug and Barber Bottle Book” by Keith Estep (Schiffer, $69.95) and any of Jim and Susan Harran’s volumes of “Collectible Cups and Saucers.” Each illustrates the type beautifully.

Q: A family member was in the import and export business in New Orleans around 1901-05. He got these two chairs from mainland China. I’ve not found anything like them. Any info?

A: Along with the query, our reader included two images of elaborately carved Oriental-style chairs with carved arms and low backs.

One he describes as a sea turtle chair. Photo quality is mediocre and carving is hard to determine, but one can see that the chair is ornate and floridly carved with what could be some sort of sea or mythical creature. The other chair features birds on entwined boughs plus a seat incised with floral designs.

We’ve covered dragon-theme Chinese chairs here before. Smart collectors will recall that the heavily carved seats were popular especially from the late 19th through early 20th centuries when Westerners snapped them up as exotic looking Orientalia. Versions are still made today.

Made for export, the busily carved chairs are not traditional Chinese antiques. They are decorative items, and the fancier the better.

A symbol of the Emperor, the dragon was the most common theme for carvings. But other designs, such as those in the images sent, were also made.

As decorative pieces, the chairs are ranked by aesthetics, condition and quality of carving. Over the top is good.

Dragon vs. sea creature vs. tiger dog vs. birds on boughs — subject is a matter of buyer preference. Top dollar goes to the qualities listed above.

In our earlier column, we included several websites where readers could view dragon chairs. Revisiting, we found a “tiger dog” chair very like the reader’s that sold at auction last year for $775.

Auction Action

Known for selling fine antique toys including cast iron, Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey realized $86,250 earlier this year for a rare and pristine Ives cutter sleigh pulled by a walking horse with articulated legs. The 22-inch-long toy is remarkable for details including running boards with figural ends, padded seating and a movable hitch. The one-owner sale realized over $2 million.

Collector Quiz

Q: When did Mattel release the first Harry Potter action figures?

a. June, 2000

b. September, 2001

c. August, 2000

d. October, 2001

e. September, 2000

A: The answer is d. They came with a casting stone for use with the Electronic Powercasting Playset. Figures with crests on the uniforms are worth more today. Source: “The Unofficial Guide to Harry Potter Collectibles” by Kathy Wells (Schiffer, $14.99).

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.


Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like