NEW YORK — At first glance, inkwells seem like a dusty holdover from the early 20th century. In this modern age of laptops and AI-generated emails, no one needs an inkwell — but that is now the point. Yes, no one needs inkwells or fountain pens anymore, but people continue to appreciate them as beautiful, elegant objects that inspire a strong sense of nostalgia and make for a well-appointed desk. Pen shows and pen auctions are held around the United States and worldwide, and those who discover the pleasures of taking pen to paper often want vintage accessories such as inkwells.
Inkwells exist in a variety of materials and a dazzling array of forms. They range from simple, functional versions to almost absurdly ornate examples. Inkwells date back to ancient times, when they were likely primitive objects fitted with a depression in which to mix the ink and pigments. At some point they evolved into a sealable form that was suitable for travel, and they became more decorative as well. Tiffany Studios started making inkwells around the late 1890s as part of desk sets catering to affluent clients who wanted their offices to reflect their social standing.
Animal-inspired inkwell forms and motifs are among the most unique and whimsical, and collectors, dare we say, are wild for them. There is a zoo’s worth of iterations to choose from, representing creatures of the land, sea and sky. Of course, scarcity drives demand, so it’s no surprise that superior animalia inkwells bring several thousand dollars or more at auction.
As noted above, Tiffany Studios created several dozen inkwell designs at the height of the Art Nouveau period, when animal themes were in vogue. One of its perennially popular offerings takes the form of an eight-legged crab holding the ink pot between its large front claws. The depiction, while not true to nature as real crabs have 10 legs, is elaborate and well-conceived. The hinged lid of the ink pot is topped with a real oyster seashell and has a glass insert. Boasting a rich patina with green features, the patinated bronze is meticulously detailed, particularly on the underside, with each leg of the crab sculpted with mastery and precision. A very similar example is pictured in Tiffany Lamps and Metalware; An Illustrated Reference to Over 2000 Models by Alastair Duncan, published in 2007. One such inkwell, likely from the early 1900s and measuring approximately 8 by 7 ½in, achieved $18,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in June 2018.
Well-executed animal-form inkwells often bring the highest prices, but the rule of thumb is that the more elaborate the design and the more intricate the decoration, the more desirable it is to collectors. This caveat certainly extends to inkwells. A Tiffany & Co. sterling silver Playing Frogs inkwell performed above its $3,000-$5,000 estimate, earning $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Treasureseeker Auctions LLC. The inkwell is tiny, only measuring 4 by 4in, but is well appointed. The sides of the inkwell depict three frogs in relief frolicking; one plays an accordion while the other two ride a seesaw. The body of the bottle-form inkwell is slightly hammered and further embellished with etched leaves and cattails as well as gilt highlights.
Porcelain examples are highly sought-after and rank alongside silver inkwells in terms of value. A pair of porcelain inkwells, probably Chinese, having an unusual all-over iron red glaze leaf decoration and topped with agate bird finials, proved irresistible to those who collect animal inkwells. The 4in-tall inkwells sold together with a carved spinach and jade standish (a piece specifically designed to hold writing equipment) for a robust price of $34,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Butterscotch Auctions.
Several notable artists played with the inkwell form, including noted American ceramicist George Ohr, who came close to rivaling P.T. Barnum’s flair as a showman. In the 1880s, the potter hung several signs on the street leading to his Biloxi, Mississippi, studio, proclaiming him “The Greatest Art Potter On The Earth.” Many of his ceramic animal works were playful and quirky, such as his mule-head inkwells from the 1890s, one of which went for $2,600 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. The long head of the mule is executed in a mottled olive green and brown glaze.
Dog-themed objects are always popular, and that extends to antique and vintage inkwells. Lovers of the most common canine breeds can generally find a piece or two that features their favorite. This Franz Bergman cold-painted bronze inkwell in the form of a bulldog fetched $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Abell Auction. It is larger than the average inkwell, at 6in tall with a 5in diameter.
Collectors on the hunt for zoomorphic inkwells should sign up for auction alerts, as these items are not abundant, but good ones do appear every so often. For an investment-worthy piece, look for inkwells that have great form and exuberant decoration, but it is more important to buy the ones that tickle your fancy and showcase your favorite animal.