Tools, decorations can change use as time passes

Tim Kovel and Kerry Kovel
Cowles Syndicate
This fanciful bisque match holder made to look like a man sold for $59 at Conestoga Auction. A recognizable caricature of a known person would have a higher value.

Sometimes inventions have changed how we perform a job. They make a certain tool or decoration no longer useful, and its earlier use is forgotten. 

A 5-inch-tall bisque vase shaped like a man in a political uniform was one of these mysteries in a recent auction. It could hold small flowers for a very short time, because the small opening would hold only enough water for flowers for a day. 

We have seen similar small figures identified as match holders, but it could be a "whimsey" (a fanciful figure, perhaps even a joke).

We were sure it was old, and we thought the figure was a caricature of a known English politician. The style of pants, short shirt, yellow epaulets, curly hairdo and flat hat seemed proper.

Whatever it was used for, it was appealing, and with eight bids, it sold for $59 at the Conestoga auction in Pennsylvania. The value will go up if the man can be identified. 

Question: What is a 100-year-old Hohner Professional model chromatic octave harmonica worth? It's in a red case that has "Made in Germany" printed on it. 

Answer: The first harmonicas were made by hand in the 1820s. Matthias Hohner, a watchmaker in Trossingen, Germany, used machines to mass produce harmonicas. He founded his company in 1857. The company is best known for its harmonicas and accordions, but it also made other musical instruments. By 1930 it was the world's biggest musical instrument maker. 

Hohner began making chromatic harmonicas in 1912. Depressing the button on the side of the harmonica changes the notes a half step, making it possible to play a chromatic scale. Hohner became part of KHS, a Taiwan musical instrument company, in 1987. It is still in business. Hohner has made over a billion harmonicas. Most aren't worth much, less than $50, because they are so common. 

If the harmonica is a model collectors want or if there is something unusual about it, it's in perfect condition and has the original box, it might sell for more. It's not possible to estimate the value without seeing it. Take it to a music store in your area and see if someone there can give you an idea of value.

Q: I have two Jasper curio cabinets. I purchased them in the 1960s from Harlem Furniture Co. in Dayton, Ohio. I was hoping that you could help me out with finding new keys for the cabinet doors! Thank you.

A: Jasper Cabinet Furniture was based in Jasper, Indiana, starting at the turn of the 20th century. The company produced secretary desks, china cabinets, curio cabinets, chests of drawers and other furniture. If antique furniture collectors — or those inheriting older curio cabinets or chests — are lucky, their pieces will come with its original key.

Before getting upset if you don't see a key, check to see if it's taped in a drawer or on the back panel. If the key is nowhere to be found, your first step would be to remove the lock and take it to an antiques store, hardware store or a locksmith. Be sure to call ahead to make sure the store has a collection of old bit keys, often called skeleton keys.

If you're lucky, the store will have a key that slides into the keyhole and throws the bolt. If not, a locksmith can look for a bit-key blank that's a close fit. Antique master keys can typically open every lock in a home, most commonly in Sears Craftsman and Victorian homes, as well as any home that's close to a century or more in age. Those antique skeleton keys are also known as "bit and barrel" keys.

Q: I have a collection of Dragonware porcelain that was made by different companies. Some pieces are finer porcelain than others. My dad started me on this collection 40 years ago, and I haven't been able to find out a lot about it. I want to pass it on to my son, but I would love to be able to tell him more about this collection. 

A: Dragonware, pottery decorated with raised dragons, has been made since the late 1800s. The raised decoration, called "moriage," is made by mixing white clay to the consistency of toothpaste and trailing it in a thin line. Moriage is still being made. You can tell the age of your Dragonware by looking at the marks. Porcelain imported into the United States after 1891 had to be marked with the country of origin. Pieces marked "Nippon" were made from 1891 to 1921; those marked "Made in Occupied Japan" were made from 1945 to 1952. Pieces marked "Japan" were made from 1921 to 1945 and again from 1952 to the present. Some pieces of Dragonware sell at auctions for a few hundred dollars and some sell online for less than $5.

TIP: The material used to make repairs is warmer to the touch than the porcelain. Feel the surface of a figurine to tell if there are unseen repairs.

Terry Kovel and Kim Kovel answer readers' questions sent to the column. Send a letter with one question describing the size, material (glass, pottery) and what you know about the item. Include only two pictures, the object and a closeup of any marks or damage. Be sure your name and return address are included. By sending a question, you give full permission for use in any Kovel product. Names, addresses or email addresses will not be published. We do not guarantee the return of photographs, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. Questions that are answered will appear in Kovels Publications. Write to Kovels, (Name of this newspaper), King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803 or email us at