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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Selection of antique mortar and pestles sold. Photo courtesy of Grogan's
Mortar and pestles have been around for centuries and date back to the ancient medicine men and shamans. The shaman was a unique force in the history of Asia, Korea, Africa, India, and Indonesia.

The Eskimos, American Indians, and Aborigines also looked to their shamans in times of need. He was said to have supernatural powers, the capacity to heal, and was an expert in herbal medicine including roots, bulbs and dried earth.

The mortar and pestle was used to grind and mix these ingredients together for powders, ointments and poultices. Of the tools that shamans and pharmacists used, none are more closely associated with the craft than the mortar and pestle.

Over time they were made larger and deeper. Pouring spouts were added as well as lugs for holding the mortar, and single or double handles. The standard mortar was 10 to 15 inches in diameter and 6 to 8 inches high.

Materials used varied from glass, wood, granite, and ivory, to lead, bronze and brass. The bronze mortar was the most common mortar used in pharmacies. Bell founders often cast mortars, as bronze was the main substance used. Materials like marble were not as popular because acids and particles could stay inside the mortar contaminating the medicine and affecting the material.

Around 1780, biscuit porcelain was introduced. The porcelain was not affected by acids and was smooth enough to be thoroughly cleaned. The Wedgwood mortar and pestle is still in use today.

Over the centuries mortars became more decorative with animal designs and inscriptions that included the date and owners name.

Many “antique” mortars and pestles seen today are really 20th century reproductions. These include the cast-bronze examples from Greece, marble from Italy and lava stone from Mexico. If you have one made of these materials, check the patina around the rim, and the worn surface at the bottom of the mortar to see if it appears to be genuine. If the mortar and pestle you own is supposed to be old, it should show signs of wear.

On Sept. 15, Grogan & Company hosted a Mortar & Pestle auction in Dedham, Mass., that included 280 lots. The unique collection was donated in 1973 to the Brockton Historical Society by a prominent Brockton family and was sold to benefit the Society’s expansion plans.

Mortar & Pestles

An Indian corn mortar & pestle, 19 3/4 inches high brought $690.

A maple mortar & pestle, 8 1/4 inches high realized $172.50.

An Edinborough brass mortar & pestle, 6 1/2 inches high, inscribed “Oedenbvg 1744,” with double ball handles, and coat of arms sold for $805.

A 16th-17th century Spanish bronze example, 4 1/2 inches high, Gothic form brought $920.

A Marine maple example, 6 inches high, inscribed June 27, 1861, Mrs. Airhart, Northfield, VT., realized $316.25.

I receive regular requests for book suggestions. So I thought I’d mention a few titles here.

Assume Nothing by Robert F. Weinhagen. I breathe easier when I see a book written by a collector. From my experience, collectors often know the most about their specialty. Weinhagen is a Harvard Law School graduate and connoisseur of 18th century American and European furniture. He has written an unassuming and understandable guide to fakes and forgeries and coaches readers on making educated judgments about 18th century furniture. It’s complete with illustrations.

Miller’s International Price Guide. If you love photos this is a book for you. It always helps to be able to see a photo of what you’re researching. The Miller’s guide provides that. The hardback shows 6,000 fully captioned photographs of everything from buttons to walking sticks. Miller’s also publishes the illustrated Collecting Kitchenware, Antiques Price Guide, Collecting Books, Pine & Country Furniture and Art Nouveau & Art Deco.

The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide by Robert Overstreet claims to provide the most complete and accurate information on all mainline comic books from 1901 to the present. The book also offers insider tips. There is a lot of detail in this one.

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