Steve Duke: We’re in a swing, you know, we’re buying, we’re selling, and every day is new at Westchester Gold & Diamonds. And yeah, we are your diamond headquarters, but besides that we do buy and sell a lot of the antiques and unusual items.
We’re always looking for something unusual, and I got a cool call from a woman, and she mentioned that her uncle had been in Ecuador 60-some years ago, and she had a shrunken head, and she had a blow gun and blow dart.
Would I be interested in it? And I said yeah, I’d love to take look at it. I have bought shrunken heads over the years, and not everybody’s got shrunken heads but not everybody collects shrunken heads.
At Westchester Gold & Diamonds, I’m kind of a gopher. I’m always looking for unusual things. And if you come in the shop, you know, we’ve got a little dinosaur that I bought. I recently bought a dinosaur egg, and some of the stuff I buy is for sale, some of it is just kind of neat stuff that we keep.
But she brought her shrunken head in, and she told me that she’d had a doctor look at this thing, and he was sure it was a shrunken head, and I asked her what kind of doctor he was. She didn’t really know, and I thought, perhaps, maybe he was a proctologist.
Ken Lovejoy: [Laughter]
Steve: Because this was definitely not a real shrunken head, you know, and it was one person’s opinion, and everybody’s entitled to them.
But when you look at a shrunken head, just in case you happen to be at a garage sale and somebody’s got one, there are a lot of different things that we look for, and it’s just like any kind of antique or collectable that we’ve talked about over the years, and I’ve told you what you need to look for.
You know, if you were out there prospecting for gold and silver, I told you to grab a magnet and it’s a real quick test to, at least, narrow it down, and it’s not going to be 100 percent correct.
There are other things to look for, besides the fact that they don’t have magnets. They’re not magnetic. But, you know, a magnet doesn’t work on a shrunken head. What do you look for? How do you tell?
And the biggest thing, the first thing we look for, when we’re looking at this shrunken head is the eyebrow line, because we find that in Ecuador, about 60 years ago, was a place where they really started making a lot of fake shrunken heads and selling them to the tourists to bring back home.
What they would do is they would take baboon heads, and they would cure them. They would boil them, get the skull out, form them, sew up the mouth — which is what they would do on a normal shrunken head — sometimes they would work on the eyebrow thing.
But the biggest thing that you see on a baboon head, the fact that there’s sort of a unibrow. You know, that brow line goes all across the head. Where on a human, our eyebrows stop. We don’t have that brow that goes all the way across.
So, when you look at it, this is the first thing that I would look at. You know, when I looked at this shrunken head… and okay, the eyebrows were individual, which is a good thing.
Now, what you have to do is look at the follicle growth on a person. On a human, the hairline on the follicles on your eyebrows go from the bottom up; this is the way the hair grows on a human.
On this head, the follicles were at the top down, which would indicate the fact that it wasn’t a human growth on eyebrow, so it’s probably a baboon.
Another thing we look at is the skin. Believe it or not, on a cured shrunken head, the skin is very supple. On a baboon head, the skin is a lot thicker than on a human and it becomes a lot more brittle, a lot tougher. It’s not as supple.
This is another thing. We look at, you know, in the ears, we have cartilage in our ears, and the boiling will certainly make the cartilage supple. But you’ll see some sort of definition in the ear, besides just the outside of it.
And you look for the canal that goes into the ear, and on the fake ones, basically, what it is it’s just a little hole. This is not what you’re going to see on a normal head.
The other thing is the fact that, you know, these heads were taken from a tribal’s enemy, and their spirit was taken away. And what they had to do, they would actually sew the lips up so that the spirit couldn’t escape through the mouth, and they would do a pretty good job.
You know, you have to understand, even though they were primitive tribes, this accomplished something. It was there not to be, you know, a souvenir. It was done to keep the spirit inside that skull, so most of the threads and sew jobs that you’ll see on it are pretty precise to keep the lips really sealed closely.
On the souvenir pieces, the thread is a lot thicker. It’s pretty haphazard. A lot of times it will go through the nose as well, and it’s just not well done. So, this is what told us that it wasn’t a genuine shrunken head.
Now, does it have value? Yeah, there are actually people who still collect stuff like this, and a shrunken head like that probably retails for around $300.
This particular woman was expecting it to be worth a lot of money, and had it been a real shrunken head, yeah, it would have been $1,000, $1,500, depending on how nice it really was, and how well it was done.
You know, especially if it had what we talk about “province,” if you can prove that it was indeed done by a particular tribe and done in a certain time.
So, if you’re out there, you will encounter, believe it or not, a lot of these reproduction shrunken heads. Maybe not at this age-time, as old as this one was, but you’ll see a lot of that stuff out there.
You just have to look and see and make your own judgments. But if you encounter one, at least I’ve given you some things to look for, and how to tell whether or not it’s a genuine shrunken head.
So put that into your bag of tricks and file it away. You never know what you’re going to run across, and like I said, you know, it’s funny — all the different things that we do buy.
Something else that came into the shop this week… I’ve been on a buying spree, because I go on vacation for a while, I get the heebie-jeebies. I come back, and I’ve got to start spending money and buying stuff.
So I don’t know if the word got out that I was back. You know, “come and hit him, he’s a sucker,” but I had a collection of costume jewelry come in. And we do buy vintage costume jewelry — a lot of people don’t realize all the different things that Westchester Gold & Diamond buys.
You know, on one of my ads we give you a list of different glassware, fountain pens, old cigarette lighters, autographs, sport memorabilia, you know, we’re mainly looking for vintage things.
But costume jewelry is something else that we do buy. There are people who collect costume jewelry, and when I say costume jewelry, we’re talking about stuff, basically, from the 1920s and 1940s — this was like the heyday of really nice costume jewelry.
And even though it was costume, it was a time where craftsmen took time to make these pieces. Yes, it was mass-produced, and it was fairly inexpensive, but the pieces that collectors were looking for are the finer pieces.
Now, how do you tell it’s a finer piece? Number one, the earlier stuff — 1920, 1940 — these were all hand assembled.
And what I mean by hand assembled, let’s say you look at a pin that a woman would wear on her dress or her jacket, a brooch type of thing. They didn’t take a mold and cast it in metal, and then just glue the stones in.
What they would do is, just like we do with genuine gold and silver jewelry, they would take what we call “a head,” and the head is the piece of metal that a stone would fit into or sit into.
So, let’s say, if I was going to make a gold piece of jewelry, and I was going to make a broach out of it, I would get heads that would fit the particular different shaped diamonds or colored gemstones I was going to make a piece of jewelry out of.
We would lay them out. A lot of times we would put them in clay, face down, and then we would either gold or silver solder the pieces together by hand, and then they’d be polished out. And then we would turn them around later on, and we’d even set our gemstones in them.
Well, the old timers did exactly the same thing with costume jewelry. Now, sometimes the heads were made out of sterling silver because it was still considered “costume” at that time — and we’re talking silver was about less than a dollar an ounce, so this was still considered costume jewelry.
Gold was $35 an ounce, which in the ‘20s and the ‘40s was still a lot of money, so this was your finer jewelry. So, when we talk about costume jewelry, it can either be made out of a non-precious metal, or it could be made out of a sterling silver.
Sometimes it was both. Sometimes you would find sterling silver, and then they would gold plate it or use what we call a gold-filled metal over the top of it to make it a two-tone.
So all these pieces are made by hand, so when you look at the backside of it — if it’s one continuous piece of metal — this tells you that it was caste. And the reason that this is important is because some of the costume jewelry, the antique pieces of costume jewelry — have quite a bit of value.
When I say quite a bit of value, compared to going to a garage sale and seeing a piece for 25 or 50 cents, a lot of the collectable antique jewelry can be anywhere from $10 up to $400 or $500, depending on who the maker was.
So, it’s important to know whether or not it’s actually genuine jewelry, and like I’ve talked about it before, and I reiterate. Any time something becomes worth money as a collectable, there’s going to be somebody out there reproducing.
Why? Because it’s fairly easy, especially with our technology now, to reproduce something, make it look old, and have someone, who’s just beginning as a collector, pay way too much for it.
Now, what happened was someone came in. One of my dealers came in with a collection of antique jewelry, and I proceeded to look at it, and there were a lot of names on there that were expensive pieces of collectable jewelry.
Most of the stuff had colored gemstones in it, or it had what we call “foil backs,” rhinestone. They almost looked like diamonds, you know, it was made to look like diamonds — lot of times it’s called “paste.”
But the way we distinguish it, when you look at a real piece of diamond jewelry, when you look at it from the back, you can see the backside of the diamond, and you can see the front side of the diamond from the front.
If you can’t see it and it shines like a diamond, then it’s probably not, and in the costume pieces of jewelry, what they would do is they one of two of things.
They would either paint the backside of the clear stone that was in there with a paint, or they would take what we call a “foil” and attach it to the back of almost like an aluminum foil.
And they would put that in back of the gemstone, and then that would be put into that solid head, that would protect it from the back from scratching.
What happens over a period of years, the paint where the foil would discolor — it oxidizes, it breaks down — and all of a sudden that gemstone no longer is shiny. It’s takes on sort of a yellowish hue or yellowish color, and that’s from the paint on the backside of the gemstones, breaking down.
So, when we see that, that’s going to effect the value dramatically because it’s not as pretty. And like, again, it can be collectable — have some value to it — but once the stones starts to break down, it’s going to effect the… it could be a $10 piece of jewelry when it’s nice looking.
Once they’ve broken down it becomes a dollar or two-dollar piece of jewelry, so it effects it dramatically. But what do we look for just to make sure this stuff is not reproduced?
Number one, we make sure that it’s hand-done. We look at the gemstones, are they glued in or are they held in by prongs? And remember, we’ll talk about this around Christmas time, but prongs with the little pieces of metal that hold the gemstone in place?
The older pieces, the prongs were nice and thin for the simple reason it was made to look beautiful. This was a piece of costume jewelry, yeah, but the person who did it was still an artisan, and he wanted it to look as pretty as he could.
The newer reproduced pieces, the prongs are very heavy. They don’t really care about the appearance that much. They’re reproducing something that used to be a fine piece and making it for a lot less money — more commercial.
So, you want to look to see that the stones are… they may not be genuine, they may be paste, they may be synthetic, but they’re held in by the prongs, they’re not just glued in. And when I say glued in, you know, if you look at it, the prongs are barely holding the stone in but the stones are all in place.
And if you take a black light, and you hold it on top of that piece of jewelry, they’ll fluoresce. They’ll turn blue underneath the black light — for the simple reason that’s the glue that’s fluorescing — and that will tell you real quickly that it’s a reproduced piece.
The old pieces are soldered together; lots of pieces will be what we call “signed.” They’ll have the name of the manufacturer on the backside or on the inside of it somewhere. Generally, they were caste in one piece so that the name of the manufacturer is very easily distinguishable.
When you look in the inside, it’s very clear — it’s in raised letters. The other thing that was done: A lot of times they were stamped right into that piece of jewelry. You know, if it was a piece of sterling silver, even if it was just a piece of pot metal, that name is stamped into it.
And again, it’s very clear. They were never put on with a little label or a little tag. And the reproduced stuff, generally, the name was stamped into that tag, and then it was just soldered or glued onto the inside of the piece of jewelry.
Again, if you look at it with a black light, you’ll probably see where the tag is glued on, as opposed to being made right into the piece of jewelry. Is it worthwhile to find the stuff?
Yeah, again, this is the stuff that you can go prospecting for at garage sales. You can get a list. You know, there are books on costume jewelry; you can look up some of the names that are worth more money.
But there’s lots of that stuff out there that you can still find for 25 cents and 50 cents and turn around and be able to sell it for $5 and $10. You know, that’s a great return on your money.
But again, you need to know these are some of the things you’d want to look for when you see costume jewelry. Sometimes you’ll see stuff that looks like it’s enameled, and when we say, “enameled” (we’ve talked about that) it’s got a painted look to it.
The old pieces of jewelry that were enameled actually were enamel that was a fine powder. It was put in an oven. It melted, and it was nice in a nice beautiful finish. The newer stuff is just painted on, and if you look at it with a loupe, you’ll find brush strokes and things like that on it.
I’m Steve Duke, the owner of Westchester Gold & Diamonds. Glad to be back with you, talking to you a little bit about costume jewelry and things to look for to distinguish reproductions.
If you find stuff — you’re interested in selling it — bring it by, and I’m always happy to look at it for you.
With that, I’m going to say good-bye to everybody, until next week.
Have Questions about your antiques, estate jewelry, collectibles or old treasures?
If you have questions for Steve Duke to answer about your jewelry, antiques or collectibles, just send a photo of the item and your question directly to Steve Duke at WGDiamonds@HotMail.com and Steve will research it for you and you may be contacted to participate in an upcoming Tradio episode. Be sure to include your name, email and phone number along with your question and email it to: WGDiamonds@HotMail.com
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Westchester Gold and Diamonds is one of the largest buyers of gold, silver, diamonds, Rolex watches, antique and estate jewelry in southwest Florida.
As the premier jewelry store in Port Charlotte since 1974. We do custom design and we are able to duplicate many designs that you may have seen in your travels; often at a fraction of the price.
We accept your old diamonds and jewelry in trade, the same as cash.