1. Home

Collecting Dresdens, Not for the Faint of Heart


Collecting Dresdens, Not for the Faint of Heart
Courtesy of Betty Bell Antiques
It doesn’t sparkle, there’s no glitter and a designer tag is not attached to identify its provenance. But to the antique ornament connoisseur, this is the real deal – the collector’s piece de resistance. It’s a Dresden.

“I will admit it frankly,” says antique ornament dealer, collector and scholar Margrit Utz of Switzerland, “someone who owns a Dresden ornament would like keeping and flaunting it on her own tree for all to see and admire!” These ornaments are fragile and so rare that their prices seemingly soar into the stratosphere.

Dresdens are flat, two-dimensional or three-dimensional gold and silver embossed paper ornaments made in the Dresden, Berlin and Furth areas of Germany. They have been in existence since the mid-19th century and are still created today in Austria and California. However, the bulk of Dresdens were produced between 1880 and 1920 in Europe and range in size from 2 to 16 inches.

Check out these pictures and prices of antique Dresdens!

Dresden ornaments were created from silver or gilt stiffened paper that was embossed and cut from detailed dies. To the novice, they may appear to be constructed of tin or gold plate. However, until 1940 real silver and bronze (called Dutch-gold) leaf was glued to the stiffened paper before embossing. After World War II, aluminum foil was used with lacquer to create the gold color. Antique gilded Dresdens often appear brown or tarnished because the ornament was originally printed or inked twice: first in a rich chocolate color, then layered with gilding. Over time, the gilding wore away, exposing the brown undercoating. Similarly, silver Dresdens received a grayish undercoat, then the brighter silver. As that top layer wore away, the ornament took on a dull gray color. Therefore, by examining the appearance and materials used, one can approximate the age of a Dresden.

Modern-day collectors might be surprised to learn that these ornaments did not enjoy the same popularity in early 20th century North America that they do today. This was largely due to their higher cost compared with cheaper blown-glass ornaments. Their limited popularity at that time has resulted in a very rare and expensive object today. Originally purchased by wealthy American east-coast families as decorations, party favors and gift tags, they were, understandably, often discarded after use. In keeping with the flamboyance of the upper classes, party favors commonly had concealed boxes that could be opened, such as doghouses with dogs inside and champagne coolers with bottles packed in cracked ice.

Dresdens were constructed by stamping a 1/32-inch sheet of cardboard between two dies. One die was the stamping die, the other the receiving die. The tiny details on the stamping die were raised and the details on the corresponding receiving die were depressed. Try to think of it like a negative or mold. (For those of you at the PhD level of Dresdens, a double-sided ornament would require four separate dies, as each side is the reverse, or mirror image, of the other. Going one step further, a three-dimensional Dresden would require two separate dies for each piece of the total ornament.) Confused? Then satisfy yourself with the knowledge that this intricate die work is what gives a Dresden its unique and detailed charm. With the embossing and cutting complete, cottage laborers carefully glued and assembled the various pieces.

Naturally, the more intricate, detailed and time-consuming the construction, the more expensive the Dresden was. According to George Johnson, author of Volume Three: Ornaments, Lights and Decorations, an 1882 advertisement in Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly featured Dresdens. Gold and silver embossed seven inch, one-dimensional fish cost 5 cents each or 50 cents per dozen. It is safe to assume that the fancier, more elaborate three-dimensional Dresdens sold for much more than that. In comparison, fancy glass ornaments sold at a penny (or less) each.

Flat Dresdens, often called “flats”, were printed and embossed on only one side. The back was either plain or painted with gold or silver ink. They were commonly sold in sheets with punch-out silver or gold embossed shapes. Occasionally, “flats” sported red or green color or were embellished with scraps and lithographs for additional interest.

“Flats” were created in almost every imaginable form, such as domestic and wild animals, stars, musical instruments, crosses, cherubs and angels. Human “flats” are quite rare, especially ones with red or green paint. Mythological figures and Father Christmas’ were the most common “human” depictions. Occasionally, “flats” were wrapped around the bottom of feather trees to embellish a plain base. As mentioned previously, they were also used as small greeting cards, gift tags, table decorations and party favors.

Gluing two mirror image “flats” together created a two-dimensional Dresden. The latter were about 1/8 to ½ inch thick and made of two pieces. If the embossing is shallow, the ornament looks rather flat. However, if the embossing is deeper, it has a fuller three-dimensional appearance.

Three-dimensional ornaments are the most sought after and rare kind of Dresden. Subsequently, they are more highly valued by collectors. They too were made of heavily embossed pieces of paper, their various sides being glued together and finished by hand. The designs were often very intricate and elaborate, resulting in extremely realistic miniature versions of carriages, humans, angels, animals, instruments and other turn of the century objects. In fact, they were so elaborate they resembled small models rather than mere tree ornaments. The width of a Dresden is what usually determines whether or not it is considered two or three-dimensional. Three-dimensional Dresdens can stand up by themselves, so they are at least ¼ inch or more in width. The more intricate the design, the more labor intensive it was to create. This, in turn, increased the price.

Extraordinarily patient hand finishers would often furnish fanciful ornaments, like a formal carriage, with tiny horses, harnesses and reins to make them come to life on the Christmas tree. In the Gilded Age, when money was no object to the elite, the ultimate party favor would be a miniature Dresden candy container or model of a stylish object, such as a beautiful carriage.

Hanging from the Tree
Many Dresdens are finished with a small loop of string in order to hang it from a tree. The loop is usually glued between two pieces of the ornament at a natural balancing point. Some “flats” have an embossed cardboard loop for hanging. While others have a pinhole through which thread is strung. When hung on the Victorian tree complete, with lit candles, the silvered and gilded Dresdens reflected light and glowed throughout the parlor.

Candy Containers
As previously discussed, Dresdens were not as popular in the 19th century as their blown-glass counterparts. One significant exception, however, was the Dresden candy container. Although papier mâché Belsnickels were common tabletop candy containers, the Dresden version was a child’s delight, being both functional and appealing when hung on the family tree and filled with sugary confections. Candy containers were formed in the shape of animals, transportation items and household objects.

Rare and Expensive
Unfortunately for most of us, the scarcity and expense of Dresdens makes them the most difficult Christmas collection to begin, which is evidenced by the fact that there are relatively few major collectors in North America. As unpleasant as it may be, a discussion of Dresdens would not be complete without addressing their cost. Several factors affect this, including their fragility. Relatively few survive the ravages of time and, combined with an affluent society eager to acquire rare collectibles of every conceivable nature, we now have a robust market for these highly sough after objects.

Currently, “flats” range in price from about $14 to $200. Rarity, condition, subject, age and coloration usually determine price. Two-dimensional Dresdens originally required more labor and were subsequently price higher than “flats”. Today, their price often ranges from $75 to $350. Three-dimensional Dresdens have always been the most expensive and their purchase is not for the faint of heart. If you are lucky enough to find one, it will likely set you back between $250 and a staggering $7,000.

Repairs, Replacements and Reproductions
While these prices tend to eliminate mere mortals from the buyer’s table, creative collectors have been known to buy damaged Dresdens at lower prices and repair them. Torn “flats” are best strengthened from behind with toothpicks and white carpenter’s glue. Three-dimensional Dresdens require more intricate surgery. But buyer beware — always ask the seller about repairs, replacements and reproductions. These are factors that can greatly affect an ornament’s value. It’s best to establish and then rely upon trusted dealers for guidance. If you think you may have spotted a Dresden in your travels, pay close attention to signs of wear, missing parts, patina and subject matter. Subject matter is important because, for example, a reproduction Dresden American flag may bear more stars than would have been appropriate at the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, a Dresdan “car” also dates itself to its actual invention.

Reproduction Dresdens are marked “Germany”, even though they were likely made in Japan or China. By law, they must say “Made in China” on a removable foil tag, while the Dresden itself is stamped “Germany” because the original version was designed there. Artisans proficient in distressing new objects can make a Dresden look old in minutes. Generally speaking, the only antique Dresdens that were embossed or stamped with the location of their manufacture were those made in Furth.

Collecting Strategies
While a major collection is difficult and expensive to establish, it is possible to acquire and enjoy a smaller selection of these festive objects. Many antique Christmas ornament enthusiasts join an organization called The Golden Glow of Christmas Past. It boasts an international membership of more than 1,700. At the group’s annual summer convention, collectors meet to listen to lectures and learn from experts, network, trade, sell and scout for new “must-haves”. The organization is also a great opportunity to make and renew friendships with those who share your passion.

Another source for unearthing Dresdens is to sift through the attics of older relatives. Aunt Bessie or great-grandma may unknowingly possess ornaments of considerable value. Saturday garage sales and flea marketsprovide another opportunity to obtain someone else’s discards. Because it is difficult to ensure authenticity, it is important to be careful when buying on the Internet unless you know and trust the seller. Note the seller’s return policy before buying.

Displaying Your Dresdens
Now that you have re-mortgaged the house to own these delicate holiday treasures, how are you going to show them off? While some devoted collectors might be able to decorate an entire tree with Dresdens, the majority will likely be content to mix them with other antique ornaments in their holiday display. Dresdens are often hung with other antique ornaments such as cottons, old blown-glass and paper die-cuts. The total effect is magical, Victorian and nostalgic.

Storing Your Dresdens
When the holidays are over, store your Dresden collection at room temperature in a dry place. Excessive heat, moisture and humidity are their worst enemy. Finally, you would be wise to insure such valuable ornaments. You may wish to either speak with your insurance agent about whether or not your household policy can have a rider added to it. Network with other collectors to see how they have addressed this issue in the most cost-effective, reliable manner.

Whether you have one or one hundred Dresdens, collectors seem to agree that they are a quietly elegant addition to the Christmas collection that can be shared and enjoyed for generations to come.

Sources for antique Dresden ornaments:

Also see Reproduction Dresdens: Bibliography:
  • Brenner, Robert, Christmas Past, 1985. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.: West Chester, PA.
  • Johnson, George, Christmas Ornaments, Lights and Decorations, 1987. Collector Books: Paducah, KY.
  • Johnson, George, Christmas Ornaments, Lights and Decorations Vol., 1997. Collector Books: Paducah, KY.
  • Heidinger, Barbara, personal interview
  • Leiby, Joyce, personal interview
  • Lenz, Bob, personal interview
  • Utz, Margrit, personal interview

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.