Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Just another Piero Fornasetti item found at a Pennsylvania yard sale

Here's an odd item — a paperweight, perhaps? — that I picked up last year at a Dover-area yard sale. It came in cardboard box that is shaped like a book and covered in gold-colored foil.

The guy selling it had discounted it from $8 to $1.50 and said he was about to throw it away at end of the day.1 He didn't really know what it was or what was the deal with the text and illustration. But he had an idea.

"We typed it into The Facebook, but nothing came up," said the guy. "It's from Romeo and Juliet."

Ashar, who was with me, disagreed.

"I think it's Rapunzel," he offered.

I can safely say they're both wrong.

Here's what we do know:

1. The paperweight is four inches tall, ceramic and shaped like a book — just like the box it came in.

2. Printed along the spine is "NAVIS STULTIFERA."

3. The odd illustration features a group of musicians, most of whom are wearing jester-like outfits, performing underneath a second-floor window. A naked woman is pouring out the contents of either a chamber pot or wash basin onto the performers. This is taking place at night, based upon the moon and stars in the upper-right corner of the illustration.

4. The text printed under the illustration states: "Nouvelle explications en vers de la nef de fols."

5. The back of the paperweight is felted in red and has a gold stamp that tells us this item was made in Milan, Italy, by Fornasetti. That would be Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988), who is no longer with us, yet has a robust and somewhat bizarre website.

So, what about the text? "NAVIS STULTIFERA" is the easy part. That's the Latin title for Ship of Fools, a religious satire published in 1494 by German Sebastian Brant.2

The text under the illustration, curiously, seems to be in French. (Curious, because Fornasetti lived and worked in Italy.) Using Google Translate, "Nouvelle explications en vers de la nef de fols" could be translated as one of these:

  • New explanations to the Ship of Fools.
  • New explanations of a verse in Ship of Fools.
  • Further explanations about the Ship of Fools.

Or something along those lines.

This paperweight was probably created in the 1950s. Fornasetti lived and worked in Italy for most of his life, except for a period in Switzerland in the mid 1940s.

According to his obituary in The New York Times:
"Mr. Fornasetti was internationally known for his original and boldly graphic black-and-white ceramics and furniture that ran the gamut from coasters to multipanel screens - and included whimsical and decorative umbrella stands, trays, cabinets, chairs and china. Mr. Fornasetti worked with glass, fabric, porcelain and wood. Mr. Fornasetti's fanciful pieces were always witty and imaginative. In his motifs, he favored Piranesi-like engravings, the sun, moon and stars, playing cards, animals and surrealistic images."

His popularity waned in the 1970s, but the market for his vintage items has been growing in recent years, according to the artist's official website (which, of course, has a vested interest.)

There are a number of Fornasetti paperweights available for sale online. Some are shaped like books, some come in other forms. Some are vintage, some are remakes.

For giggles, I think I'll post this Ship of Fools paperweight on eBay. Given that it cost us $1.50 (and was about to be thrown out), it won't take much to swing a profit and get this into the hands of a collector who will truly appreciate it.

* * *
February 27 addendum: I am both thrilled and embarrassed to report that this paperweight sold for $407 in a recently concluded online auction. I think it's safe to say this will go down as my "Yard-Sale Pick of a Lifetime." And, more importantly, I'm glad this treasured piece of art ended up with a collector and not in a trash can in Dover.

1. The guy also told me: "Best place to find me is at street fairs. I'm the guy in the wide-brim hat."
2. According to Wikipedia and other sources, however, the paperweight has it backwards. It's supposed to be Stultifera Navis.

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