Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stone Fruit

 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, for a great selection of early pieces at good prices.


  1. ...Oh my! God forbid I win as I'm sure it will start a new addiction for me but I've always wanted to collect it and goodness knows you can't have just one! :o)

    ...Please enter me and thank you for the info. - very helpful!

    ...Blessings... :o)

  2. Fabulous information! Thank you!!

  3. A big thanks for sharing your knowledge with everyone, especially those of us who are new to collecting and vastly less experienced!

  4. Judi~Thanks so much for the great information on "Stone Fruit"!! I have been collecting it for years but still learned a lot from your post!!
    Take care, Judy

  5. good morning~

    This is so wonderful to see so much of this lovely old stone fruit.
    I have had a love of these forever~seeing it altogether just makes my heart sing.
    thank you for such wonderful pictures and information.
    please enter me as well!
    many thanks!


  6. Nice article Judi, I'll put a link to it on my blog.


  7. What an lovely post...I LOVE stone fruit. Lots of good info and such beautiful pieces you have. Thanks for sharing and please enter me in your giveaway. Enjoy the rest of your day. Jenn

  8. Thanks so much for the information. I tried to research the (fill in the blank) question and could not find the Professor's last name. This was very informative as I have a small collection now. Love the miniatures!

    P.S. The kitchen looks great too! Keep up the herding..Goats next???

  9. My beautiful stone peach arrived here at Deerfield Farm yesterday and I am in love...
    it's so beautiful and so prettily colored.

    It looks wonderful sitting in an old pewter plate I have. Thank you so very much,Judi.

    I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

    I enjoy your blog very much and learning about such lovely old things. Everything I've read about here are just what makes my heart sing,too.

    again, many thanks. I will treasure this lovely old stone peach. It is a beauty.

    yrs very kindly,
    Deerfield Farm

  10. What a wonderful display and such good information to help all of us who collect stone fruit. I have learned a lot from this post. Now I wish we could just find more!!!!! If the giveaway is still on, please enter my name. Jennifer

  11. Thank you for the great stone fruit information. I was not even sure what stone fruit was until an antique store showed me. I now know the difference in good and not so old fruit.

  12. crystalcoyote@hotmail.comMay 8, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Thanks so much for the information. I just found stone fruit today at two different thrift stores (imagine my surprise!). I don't collect it myself, but I couldn't pass it up either. Hopefully I can find a buyer for it. Some of the pieces do look older as you described.

  14. I recently purchased a set of stone fruit. One set of the cherries appeared to have been repainted. Some of the cherry paint transferred to a few of the other fruit pieces. Is there a way to get that off without ruining the aged finish?

    I enjoyed the info you shared!

    Thanks, Karen

  15. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Still relevant after all these years. Stone fruit is beautiful.