Antique Letter Openers
An antique letter opener (also known as a paper knife) is a sharp tool used for opening an envelope, page or book.
Before there were text messages, emails and the much-maligned fax machine, there were letters – millions of them: to read, to write and to reply to.Brief history and description
Letter openers are a product of this period – when correspondence between people who did not live together (and between a few who did) was primarily written and therefore, arguably, a more formal affair, bound up with grammatical conventions and a degree of ceremony.
Letter openers were considered part of an average desk set, stored alongside writing and drawing implements, and were used to open letters. They were typically made from bronze, silver, bone or ivory and were often ornately carved, decorated, or designed to resemble mythical beasts or the hilts of swords.
Some of the many companies known for manufacturing high-quality openers include Sheffield, Georg Jensen and Tiffany Studios. In the early 1900s the Able and Willing Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as the General Agency in Germany sold a product which was a combination of both a pencil sharpener and a paper knife.
Guide for collectors
Antique letter openers which were manufactured by companies like Tiffany Studios, Sheffield and Georg Jensen sell for much higher prices at auctions. An authentic Tiffany Studios item is typically marked with the words "Tiffany Studios; New York" along with a four digit number.
Some Georg Jensen letter openers were given individual names based on their patterns or appearance, such as the "Blossom," the "Cactus," the "Acorn," and the "Pyramid," although the "Blossom" series is considered to be the most valuable.
Antique desk sets consisting of paper knives and pens, as well as letter openers featuring unique handles or elaborate decorations or jewels such as jade, sterling silver or gold are also highly collectible.
The more unusual and appealing the design of a letter opener, the more appealing it is likely to be to collectors who prize unusual and novel items. Age is also a key concern, generally the older an antique letter opener happens to be, the more valuable it is.
Sterling silver letter openers will almost always be stamped with a makers mark and a silver mark. These items, if particularly ornate or beautiful, ought to be worth a great deal more than their silver value.
Chinese letter openers often feature valuable jade or ivory handles.
Letter openers that once belonged to esteemed letter writers (such as authors and political figures) will appeal to both collectors of letter openers and collectors of memorabilia more generally.
As letter openers are relatively small, indelicate, easy to display and care for, they are popular collecting items.
The Early Office Museum's website has information regarding antique letter openers, desk sets, paper knives and much more.
Timeless Antiques in Laguna Beach, California sold a Russian Faberge spinach jade letter opener featuring a two-headed Czarist eagle, a large ruby and seven small rubies (11.9" x 1.3") for $8,000 in June of 2011.
Artingstall & Hind Auctioneers in Beverly Hills, California sold an antique Chinese letter opener with a jadeite handle (11.5" in length) for $1,600 in January of 2012.
Skinner in Massachusetts sold a 14kt gold and horn letter opener which was designed as a scimitar for $225 in December of 2008.
Uniques & Antiques, Inc. in Aston, Pennsylvania sold a two-piece Georg Jensen sterling letter opener (7.5" in length) for $80 in December of 2011.
Philadelphia Estate Liquidators, Inc. in Cherry Hill, New Jersey sold an antique bronze letter opener (6.75" in length) for $20 in June of 2011.
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