Personal Luxuries | Past Masters

Marbles

Not quite the inexpensive stocking filler you thought: some marbles are now changing hands for thousands of pounds. Simon de Burton chases down these high rollers.

November 18 2010
Simon de Burton

As one of America’s top real-estate developers, Bob Geis is probably not short of friends. So what’s with all the solitaire sets dotted about his home office in Baltimore, Maryland? The answer is that he is keen for anyone who enters to see that he has not lost his marbles. In fact, he has a far greater complement of marbles than most. There are around 200 on display, each one glinting seductively from its own little hollow among the solitaire boards. Geis estimates that a 19th-century example flecked with gold is worth $10,000, and values the entire collection (very conservatively) at around $100,000.

Small, transportable, historical, durable, aesthetically pleasing and still affordable, marbles have become the latest thinking person’s collectable – although Geis has been one step ahead of the game for decades. “I started collecting when I was 11,” he explains. “My parents used to enjoy visiting antiques shops with me and that’s how I discovered marbles. I still have some of my early purchases, but they are all of quite average quality. Now I’m very particular about what I buy, and only go for real rarities in excellent condition.”

Geis’s $10,000 marble might sound like a one-off, but it is not the most valuable in existence. Last December, Morphy Auctions of Denver, Pennsylvania, sold a two-inch “onion skin” marble with mica panels for $18,800.

“That is the most achieved to date for a marble at auction,” says the firm’s CEO and owner Dan Morphy, “but plenty of others are known to have changed hands in private deals for considerably more – and prices are continuing to rise. There are several private collections in the US each worth $1m plus.

“I estimate that the number of marble collectors worldwide has increased at least threefold during the past five years, partly as a result of the information available via the internet. America remains the main hotspot, but we are being contacted by people from as far afield as Australia and Africa. We now have sufficient interest to stage two dedicated marble auctions per year.”

Some buyers hoard their finds in safes and bank vaults, but others revel in the myriad patterns and colours by displaying them as works of art. Morphy, himself a collector of 28 years’ standing, even commissioned an illuminated room divider designed to show his marbles to their full potential in his latest home.

So, with literally billions of marbles in circulation, why are some of them worth thousands and others pennies? “It’s an absolutely massive subject,” says William Harvey, a leading UK enthusiast and the proprietor of graphic design firm Loose Marbles. “However, the collectable types can be divided into two main categories – handmades and machine-mades. Handmades tend to be more valuable, and were mainly created in Germany from around 1830 until 1914, when the Great War virtually terminated production. In 1903, however, Martin Frederick Christensen of Akron, Ohio, invented the machine-made glass marble. His lead was followed by the firm Akro Agate and a stream of others. At the peak, there were around 30 factories in America, some of which were making millions per day.” When Czechoslovakia, Taiwan and Japan got in on the act during the early 1950s, however, the US market was all but destroyed, and now just three factories remain there.

Despite their ubiquity, American machine-made marbles do have a following among enthusiasts – although the German handmades are usually more sought-after. Typically collectable are “sulphides” (opaque glass with a tiny figure embedded in the marble’s centre); “onionskins” (a flecked and coloured surface); swirls (clear with swirls of colour within); “Joseph’s coats” (multiple wavy stripes); and “clambroths”, usually a milkglass marble decorated with fine, symmetrical stripes. So-called “end of day” marbles – made from sweepings off the glass-blower’s floor – are also popular.

Prices, meanwhile, range from £20 for an interesting, machine-made marble to thousands for rarities such as a coloured sulphide. Factors that determine price include condition (vigorous play inevitably causes damage), pattern, maker and, in particular, size. A standard playing-size marble measures five-eighths of an inch in diameter, but collectors clamour for one-inch and two-inch examples, with some of the largest measuring a covetable two-and-one-eighth of an inch.

Original “sets” of marbles are also popular. Often, this means a box of 100 or more similar marbles that were supplied to a retailer but left unsold and consigned to storage. Morphy Auctions recently sold such a box – an assortment of “bloodies” (orangey-red in colour) – for less than $100. In contrast, a box of 100 National Rainbow Line marbles, containing “dragons”, “super boys”, “red zebras”, “ketchup & mustards”, “Christmas trees”, “tigers”, “zebras”, “cub scouts” and “yellow & reds”, drew $3,800.

It will take a dedicated buyer, however, to match the number amassed by Sam McCarthy-Fox. More than 50 years collecting, combined with 33 years as organiser of the British and World Marbles Championship, has resulted in a hoard of 40,000 marbles. The event has taken place at The Greyhound pub in Tinsley Green, West Sussex, on almost every Good Friday since 1932. About 20 teams of six come from around the world to compete in a 6ft ring in the car park. The aim of the game is to be the first to knock 25 of the 49 marbles out of the ring. You will not, however, find many marble rarities or dedicated collectors there.

“It makes me weep when I think of the thousands of marbles that must have been plucked eagerly from Christmas stockings, only to be smashed by ball bearings and dropped down drains in years gone by,” opines Harvey. “Why couldn’t they have stuck to playing solitaire?”

See also

Collecting