Antiques & Collectibles: Hole in phrenology head is a clue to its age

Mid-20th century copies of a phrenology head presently sell for $25 to $50, based on condition and size.

Question: My photo shows a label that was glued over a large hole on the bottom of an 11 1/2-inch high ceramic bust found at a yard sale. The head is marked with lines that divide it into areas labeled "character, intelligence, self-esteem, benevolence" etc. "Phrenology By L.N. Fowler" is printed on the bust's front and "Entered at Stationers Hall" is on its side. Can you tell me something about it? - W.G., Marmora

Answer: Your piece, known as a phrenology head or bust is a table-top representation of a human head showing attributes supposedly associated with various areas of the brain according to phrenology, a pseudoscience. Introduced by Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall in the 1790s, phrenology was a system by which it was thought character traits could by determined through study of bumps on a patient's head.

A 19th century revival of interest in phrenology led to the manufacture of illustrated ceramic, plaster and metal heads used to study certain types of behavior by associating them with delineated areas on the head. Lorenzo N. Fowler of London and New York was a prominent manufacturer of English porcelain examples. His design is registered at Stationers' Hall, a London landmark where copyrights are recorded.

Antique study heads range in height from 4 to 20 inches and some are enhanced with glass eyes. The design was replicated on colorful posters as well as inkwells, bookends and cane handles. Folks who search for medical items and unusual display pieces pay as much as $4,000 for a cane and $800 for a mint antique head. However, your head's large hole indicates it is one of many slip-cast reproductions made during the 1960s and 1970s. Such pieces presently sell for $25 to $50, depending on condition and size.

Question: I recently bought a white enameled mesh purse at a thrift shop where it was identified as a 1920s item. Six inches long, 3 3/4-inches wide with a silver frame stamped "Whiting & Davis" and a long silver chain, it is decorated with a black enamel portrait of Charlie Chaplin. Information about the purse's maker, age and value is requested. - N.P., Northfield

Answer: Founded in 1876 as The Wade Davis Co., the Plainville, Mass. firm became The Whiting & Davis Co. two decades later. In 1907, W&D introduced the famous mesh purses and related fashion accessories that have been worn and widely collected for more than a century. Originally produced in precious metals, gold plate, silver plate and gunmetal, W&D patented metal items later were enhanced with colorful enameled flowers, birds and geometric Art Deco designs.

Although Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) the subject of art featured on your bag was a famous silent film star during the first quarter of the 20th century, your purse is part of a "Hollywood Star Series" introduced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Whiting & Davis. The short-lived series includes likenesses of Chaplin, Rene Adoree, Marion Davies and Clark Gable. Originally sold for $10 each, the very rare, highly collectible portrait purses fetched as much as $1,784 in 2009, but most now bring $300 to $900, based on condition.

Alyce Hand Benham is an antiques broker, appraiser and estate-liquidation specialist, whose consulting firm, Treasures Unlimited, is based in southern New Jersey. Send questions to: Alyce Benham, Life section, The Press of Atlantic City, 11 Devins Lane, Pleasantville, N.J. 08232. Email:

Letters may be used in future columns but cannot be answered individually, and photos cannot be returned.

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