Trash or Treasure: Asian-style lamp once a vase

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Barbara Blass’s husband “remembers it always being in his grandparents’ house,” when he was growing up, Blass told appraiser Brian Thomczek at a recent appraisal held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy. “The history we know is that it was from my husband’s grandmother and grandfather who lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio. We think it was a wedding gift somewhere about 1890.”

Blass supplied a little additional information in her original email to the column asking for an appraisal.  “This is the dragon base of a lamp, however we think that at one time it might have been a vase,” she explained. “We believe the material is bronze and it has a dragon wrapped around the base with the head (cast as a separate piece) coming out of the base…our best estimate is that it was from the turn of the century.”

Barbara Blass with her lamp.

She told the appraiser she had seen a similar item at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida.  “I was so excited when I saw it,” she remembered. The one difference is that it was a vase, not a lamp, which is what led her to believe that her heirloom may have also started life in another form. “It was very similar but a bit smaller with a dragon. It was a miniature of what we had,” she explained. They also saw something similar in an antique store in Stratford, Ontario, but the shop was closed and they couldn’t go in.

Thomczek said not only was her piece probably once a vase, but it had probably also once been part of a pair. “Vases were often made into lamps, which can adversely affect their auction value." He added that if she took the base that was added off the bottom she might find a maker.

Unfortunately, the metal is not bronze, but a material called spelter, a less-valuable metal  often made of zinc or a combination of copper and zinc, he explained. “It was made to look like bronze, but is heavier and often hollow inside.” He dated the piece to the early 20th century, probably about the time  it was given as a wedding gift, adding the motif is a common one and that her piece is a copy of an earlier style. “Dragons have been a popular Chinese symbol for a very long time.”

He said her vase/lamp would probably bring $200 to $400 at auction. She said she was more interested in learning the history of the piece than in its value. She uses it as a lamp and has grown attached to it, she says.

Blass wrote back to the column after the appraisal to say she had later unearthed some information she received from a representative at the Flagler museum that suggested their lamp — and possibly hers — was from the early 1900s and could have been originally fueled by kerosene and later refitted for electricity.

“It’s a love it or hate it kind of piece,” Blass said. “When I met my husband I hated it but now I love it. Tastes change.... Now we will never let it go.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.   

About this item

Item: Asian-style lamp/vase

Owned by: Barbara Blass

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $200 and up