Collectible antique buttons are not “just buttons”. They are special buttons of a particular age and type and there are several ways to collect and organize them. What follows is a brief overview of button collecting and what to look for and what to avoid on Ebay.
Antique buttons can be collected by: material (glass, metal, wood, Bakelite, etc), by theme (dogs, people, scenes, period,etc), by usage (uniform, work clothes, etc), or by historic or commemorative importance (world fairs, political). There are other fields of interest, but the above are the major areas of collecting.
Metal picture buttons from the very late 1800′s and early 1900′s are among the most popular of collectible buttons. A picture button is one with a recognizable subject matter (animals, people, scenes, etc). Generally, metal picture buttons that are larger (1 1/4″ or more) in size are more desirable than the same button would be in a smaller size. Buttons made of silver and other precious metals are popular, especially those with pictures on them. Metal buttons with fired on enameled pictures are in demand, especially those that are large and have steel or paste (rhinestone) embellishments. Military and uniform buttons are a large specialized class. Buttons from the Civil War or earlier are highly sought after. Confederate buttons generally are far more valuable than Union ones. Historic buttons are another specialty and can include a collection of pewter buttons with backmarks of early American pewterers, for example. In glass, many collectors like early construction types like radiants and molded tops with embedded wire shanks, or lovely colors like cranberry and cobalt, or the lacy glass buttons that have fancy molded surfaces with painted backs. Antique black glass buttons are of particular interest when they are large and have pictorial subjects. Paperweight buttons have a glass design or “set up” covered with a topping of transparent glass. Antique and modern paperweight buttons are equally sought after. An example attributed to the Sandwich glass factories is a great antique paperweight “find” while the mid-20th Century artist Kaziun made exquiste modern paperweights that are also highly prized. In ceramics, there are beautiful examples from Minton, Wedgwood, Dresden, and others. Japanese Satsuma and Arita buttons are eagerly sought after, particularly the fine, early Satsumas with heavy gilding. Antique buttons made of wood, papier mache, horn, rubber and shell and other materials are most desirable if they have fine workmanship and pictorial subjects. Plastics are led in popularity by the figural Bakelite examples and figural celluloids such as those by M. Weeber. There are many collectors who love modern glass, metal, plastics, etc, including studio buttons. Studio buttons are those made in limited numbers by artisans especially for the collector’s market and not generally available commercially.
Almost any 18th Century (1700-1799) button is valuable, but collectors especially love: paintings and other media “under glass”, elaborately carved and decorated pearl (shell) buttons, Wedgwoods and other early ceramic buttons. Large 18th Century copper and steel buttons are also very desirable, particularly those rare metal examples with pictorial subjects.
The best thing a new collector can do is obtain a copy of the Big Book of Buttons by Hughes and Lester and study it voraciously. Though more than 25 years old it is still the definitive button collecting guide. I’d also recommend joining the National Button Society. I suggest these two resources particularly because the information they provide is well researched and accurate. In addition there are some excellent books about military and commemorative buttons available, especially books by Warren Tice. The older books by A. Albert, Jane Adams and the Ertells are all very good. Of course, if there is a local button club in your area, by all means, join it, you may see some great buttons.
Ebay has made many fine buttons available to everyone. Some Ebay sellers however, are unsure of what they are offering and tend to believe buttons are older or rarer than they really are. Don’t let words like “scarce”, “rare”, or “unique” influence your bidding. Read and learn everything you can about buttons so you are armed with information and can trust your own judgement. Don’t hesitate to ask sellers for more photos or description of buttons you are thinking of buying. Look at the backs of buttons as well as the fronts since the shanks and construction help to date buttons once you have learned what to look for. If you can’t see the button well enough to be sure it is what you think it is, don’t bid. Take sellers descriptions with a “grain of salt” until you learn who is a knowledgeable seller. Be aware, for example, that most buttons offered as “marcasite” are not, they are steel; many buttons offered as “Civil War” should be dated far later (this is particularly true of bone and military buttons); many glass buttons offered as “paperweights” are not true paperweights as defined by the National Button Society.
One thing more to remember is that “good condition is everything”. This is as true with antique buttons as it is with other collectibles. Don’t accept the idea that you should expect all old buttons to have chips, excessive rust, replaced shanks or other damage just because they are old. Except for unique, rare or scarce buttons, it is unwise, expensive and unnecessary to buy damaged buttons.
Oh, and one other caution, be suspicious of metal buttons that have wonderful, sometimes unique subjects but which I believe may have been “assembled” fairly recently from old jewelry or button findings. They are often offered as “vintage” on Ebay. Most, if not all, of these so-called “vintage French” buttons are not seen in the older button books because, I believe, they did not exist as buttons at the time those books were written. In addition, I have never seen even one of them in large collections amassed before the 1990′s, which I consider a strong cause for suspicion. I am distressed when I see bidders driving up the prices of so-called “vintage” buttons that have no reliable documentation to back up the claims for their origin or age. If they were called “studio buttons recently assembled from old jewelry findings” they would certainly not command the prices they do. Be careful.