I've been dealing in antique stone fruit for many years, and often customers new to collecting stone fruit have questions, such as "how old is it", "what is it made of", "how can you tell the difference between the good old stuff, the newer stuff, and the fakes", and so on. So I will attempt to give a few answers.
First off, its not exactly stone fruit, its really painted Italian marble fruit, but collectors and dealers refer to it as stone fruit. Stone fruit was first made in the Victorian days, and became very popular after WWII, and is still made today.
Look at the beautiful fruit above. It is the most popularly collected stone fruit, call it the "good stuff", if you will. The good stuff was made in Italy, between 60 and 100 years ago, from white Carrara marble. The Italians made fruits, miniature fruits, oversize fruits, nuts and vegetables. They are hand carved, and you can sometimes see the chisel marks. It is hand painted, and the paint is quite dry, you can sometimes see the black marble veins through the paint, and the colors have softened with time. The grapes were wired onto pieces of real grape vine, the stems in all the fruit are short pieces of grape vine, and the cherries are wired together. The peanuts and almonds are carved out of travertine stone, and its many small pits give the look of the real nuts. They feel cold against your cheek, like real stone would do.
Can you tell the difference here? On the left is a newer stone peach, where the blush is sponged or sprayed on, and on the right is a good old one. Look at the rich deep yellows and reds. Remember, they took the lead out of paint in the '70s, and you never saw the good deep reds again. And look at the wear and patina. Wear and tear and accidental teeth marks of small boys are part of the history of an old piece. More than one customer has smilingly told me of how he tried to bite his grandmother's stone fruit.
Here are two nice stone fruit "halves".
Here's a nice group of stone veggies I had last year from the "second period." You can see the hand painting is pretty nice, and they are definitely hand carved, see the carrot!Here is a pic from a recent visit to the famous York Antique show. Another type of stone fruit to collect is "oversized" stone fruit. They made most forms in a larger than life format. The grapes you commonly see, the others are quite rare. The apple here was about 5" in diameter and maybe 6" tall, see the comparison of the business card. The prices ranged from $700 to $2,300. I thought they were overpriced, but the guy said he used a recent sale at Skinners that brought even higher prices as a comparison.
The "second period" of stone fruit from Italy started in the '70s, when they started using spray paint to paint the marble fruit. They were very good, and the earlier pieces from this time look quite nice, blending the colors well, and adding some hand painted details. Also, I've had some pieces from this time with paper stickers that say "hand carved by Professor (fill in the blank)". Later the paints got very bright and careless in blending, and the surface got shiny. They did less hand carving, and you can see the mechanical lathe turning marks on the round pieces. The other major flaw with this time period was the use of plastic stems on the fruit, and even the grapes. Very ugly!
Modern fruit from Italy has come back to the earlier look, with wire and grape vine details, and at least some hand painting. Italians made the first stone fruit, and still do so today. Today it is also made in China. The marble or whatever stone they use is a little different from the Italian marble, and the paint is quite bright, but very realistic. You also see carved alabaster fruit from Mexico, also still made today. It is stained, not painted, and polished to be shiny.
Here is a representative group of the Mexican polished alabaster fruit.
Here is a pic of some modern Italian fruit.
Not a great picture, but look at the nice group of miniatures in the small bowl. Also notice how the dark grapes in the larger bowl brings out the yellows and reds of the other fruit, so don't forget to add a few dark pieces to your bowl.
So how to start collecting? Well, start with your goal, say put something nice in an old bowl you have. Start with the more common pieces, as they are less expensive, the apples, peaches pears, then add some dark pieces, and a few smaller scale pieces, such as strawberries or cherries or nuts, so you have the large and small of it, and there you are, done!
But if you want to do something else, consider a bowl of a single fruit, as you would have if you came home from the market. Some pretty peaches or oranges say. Look at the ones below.
I enjoy seeing the differences in individual carvers work. Here are three old oranges. Look at the peel, think how hard that would be to carve! Look at the differences in the styles of the three oranges, and the slightly different shades of orange. Also, the front one is kind of tapered, maybe it was made from a leftover bit of marble from a statue that wasn't quite right.
You could put three interesting miniatures in a little pewter dish. Or you could take one oversize piece and use it as a piece of art on a shelf or mantel. You could have a group of all one color, you could have a group of "mistakes", pieces made with mistakes. You could collect pieces with painted and carved in bruises, like real overripe fruit. I had a customer who filled a carrier with stone vegetables for the kitchen counter. You could collect just nuts, or just oversize, or just halves. Wow, just think of what you could do.
How available is the stone fruit, how do you buy it? Since it became popular again in the late 80s, its been pretty available at the larger antiques shows, in malls and at some auctions. Be careful at online auctions where you can't see and touch the pieces. Much of what you may see comes from China, and the nuts are plastic resin, not stone. Like all antiques, deal with dealers who will guarantee their pieces, and accept returns. But that said, if you've ever wanted to start a collection, don't wait long. I am seeing a big slow down in nice pieces coming to market. They are much harder to find the last year or so. I suppose like all things, popularity and good prices drove the pieces to market, and now that's slowing down, the attics of America are cleaned out. They are found more often in the south (they don't attract fruit flies!), and were brought home by many GIs, so look for them in estates collected during the 50s and 60s. Prices have been stable for the last few years, so I don't see any changes there for a while. And of course, check out my website, www.bluedogantiques.com for a great selection of early pieces at good prices.