© Arto Hanciogullari und T. Tsekyi Thür

Acquisition of Kerosene/Paraffin Lamps

There are four main sources for acquiring ancient kerosene/paraffin lamps:

a) Auction houses
b) Antique dealers and antique markets / fairs
c) Flea markets and junk dealers
d) Internet (eBay and other auction portals)


Auction Houses

There are auction houses that occasionally sell old kerosene/paraffin lamps at auction. Especially when the heirs of a collector entrust their collection to an auction house, there are several, sometimes very beautiful or valuable lamps on offer at one go. Here one can certainly expect a more or less well-founded description and evaluation of the lamps on offer. Reputable auction houses often have good experts on hand who expertly appraise the pieces to be auctioned. If one is successful at such an auction and has won the bid for a beautiful lamp, one can assume with some certainty that one has not bought a "pig in a poke". Since auction houses are concerned about their reputation, they only offer well-preserved, possibly complete and authentic pieces anyway, provided that they have experts who are not only proficient in the artistic description of an object (which is almost always very satisfactory), but are also well versed in the technical details (which unfortunately rarely happens).

The disadvantage of auction house offers is that of course many lamp collectors bid, and the price goes up quickly. Good, valuable lamps have their price; and certainly the money is well invested. But the auctioneer's surcharge is added to the hammer price (in Germany just under 25% incl. VAT, i.e. a quarter of the hammer price is added to make it easier to do the mental arithmetic), and in the end the lamp is more expensive than expected.

Personally, I have only rarely bought a kerosene/paraffin lamp at an auction house, because I simply did not want to cede another quarter of the purchase price to the auction house. However, this does not mean that I advise you against it. On the contrary, I think auction houses with a good reputation are a very good source where you can buy really good, valuable lamps with a good, expert description and valuation. If one wants to build up one's collection only with valuable lamps that are moreover fully equipped, and thus does not want to spend time and effort on completing them, the auction houses are certainly a first-class address. However, one has to accept the surcharge as an additional cost.


Antique Dealers and Antique Markets

Valuable, luxurious kerosene/paraffin lamps are relatively rare among antique dealers; especially in Germany, one has to search for a long time for dealers who carry good kerosene/paraffin lamps in their range. The reason for this is probably that valuable, artistically beautiful kerosene/paraffin lamps were more likely to be found in large cities, in richly furnished households of middle-class and wealthy people, and it was precisely these large cities that were mercilessly bombed to pieces during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of flats and houses were completely destroyed by bombs and subsequent fires. Valuable antiques (furniture, works of art, books, carpets, etc.) were destroyed forever. Countless kerosene/paraffin lamps were certainly among them. In France and Great Britain it is different. Here there is a very rich fund of all kinds of antiques, since the destruction of the war was not on the scale of German cities.

If you still find a beautiful lamp, which is probably still intact, the dealer wants to get a huge sum for the piece. The antiquarian is usually of the opinion that he is selling an immensely valuable antique, similar to a beautiful Meissen plate from the 18th or early 19th century. If you want to know more about the lamp and ask questions, it soon becomes clear that the dealer does not know much about the lamp. He may have bought the lamp from a household clearance, or from a previous owner who wanted to sell some of his household. He may be able to tell the approximate age of the lamp. But that exhausts his knowledge and willingness to provide information. This is not so bad if you are already an accomplished collector and can quickly form a competent opinion about the condition of the lamp and its components. But if the dealer demands 850 euros for a lamp that is worth 350-400 euros at most, then it is time to say goodbye to the beautiful piece, because the dealer is of course not willing to lower his own price expectations so blatantly.

I must confess, the situation described above is my very personal opinion. It is based on my experience with a few antique dealers in Germany, where my and their price expectations diverged quite a bit, and consequently I did not acquire anything. You may have a different, much more positive experience, which I wish you from the bottom of my heart. I was lucky only once, and that was at an antique market where I managed to acquire an old Hinks lamp with a very rare duplex burner very cheaply.

What I have described as a fairly likely situation for antique dealers, namely little knowledge and very exaggerated price expectations, is also true for antique markets, because the offer there is partly determined by antique dealers. Some dealers hope for an additional turnover besides their shop; others have no shop at all and frequent antique markets here and there. Nevertheless, in my experience, antique markets are not always full of antique dealers offering only very valuable and very expensive goods, but also dealers with mediocre antiques and also more moderate prices are waiting there for customers. While their knowledge of a kerosene/paraffin lamp they are offering may not be worth talking about, the likelihood of acquiring something good at a good price is higher especially with these dealers. See the example of my lucky purchase above.


Flea Markets and Junk Dealers

In many parts of Germany, flea markets are real flea markets without any higher standards. This means that the goods on offer there are often of inferior quality; worthless household articles, junk goods, second-hand clothing, worn-out paperbacks, and the like are sold. To come across well-preserved, even rare, valuable, antique goods in such flea markets and to buy them for very much less than their value is in most cases only a dream. Finding a valuable kerosene/paraffin lamp here is probably as likely as winning the lottery. But there are exceptions. Flea markets in big cities can offer a completely different quality. I know from hearsay that Berlin and Leipzig are very rich sources in this respect (I personally have not yet been to these famous flea markets; I hope to visit them one day, possibly even with a successful find).

The above might be different abroad. I was allowed to visit a medium-sized flea market in Paris twice, and each time I could have bought at least 6-7 kerosene/paraffin lamps there, if I could have carried them as well. Flea markets abroad (at least in Paris) seem to be more antique markets for broader sections of the population. However, I also have to admit that the lamps I could have bought there at a reasonable price were not complete: the shade was always missing, the glass chimney sometimes too. So you have to lower your expectations in terms of completeness, original authenticity, etc. if you want to "get your money's worth". Flea markets do not offer valuable, complete kerosene/paraffin lamps worth several hundred euros.



This brings us to the most productive source, which is becoming increasingly important for both sellers and collectors: Internet. For years, the American company eBay has very successfully demonstrated how well one can search for, find and buy or even sell goods of any kind on the internet. Encouraged by the resounding success of this Internet portal, other similar portals (either local or even international) have also been set up, but without achieving the level of popularity of eBay. You will also have guessed that I bought most of my lamps on eBay. I will try to explain my reasons here.

I have neither the time nor the necessary money to travel from city to city, dealer to dealer, antique market to antique market to build up a collection. Travelling costs a lot of money as well as time, if you take into account petrol costs, accommodation costs, etc. And success is not guaranteed; you might drive 250 km to an antique market, and if you are not lucky, you go back empty-handed. It is much more time-saving and free (apart from the monthly flat rate for internet) to browse the internet. You can even look at the catalogues of auction houses or even antique dealers, as long as they also offer their products on the internet.

eBay is, of course, the largest conceivable portal for offering goods and searching for goods. And the search is not limited to one country. You can also browse eBay portals in other countries, e.g. France or the USA, to name just a few examples. Internet has made it possible what collectors had been looking for for generations, namely to get the possibility to search for a desired item worldwide and quickly, and not in a few specialised shops in their vicinity with their more or less limited offer.

Certainly, what I have described above, namely that many sellers do not know well enough about their goods and thus offer incomplete, often incorrectly assembled, even "cobbled together" goods, is especially true for eBay, and even more so that this situation reaches a sad culmination in eBay. Thus, for beginners with little expertise, eBay is a forest full of trees and, unfortunately, many dangerous traps. Often, the auctioned goods that were described as "complete" and "functional" are incomplete and even defective, and one has to spend money later to complete or repair these goods properly. But, and this is important to mention, the goods are very often put on eBay with a very low initial price; and the probability of getting these goods reasonably cheap (sometimes even very cheap!) is quite high.

I often browse eBay portals of Germany, France, the UK and the USA, sometimes Italy or Austria, and sometimes find lamps that are interesting because they have an unusual shape or a rare burner, or belong to a type I have wanted to acquire for a long time, or are simply beautiful. This last factor is the most important for me in my decision to bid. Often, even very often, the kerosene/paraffin lamps on offer are incomplete; in almost all cases they are offered without a shade, sometimes without a chimney, more often with the wrong chimney. Even if they are described as "complete", they are only a torso, a lamp body that now has to be completed.


eBay Finds from my Personal Point of View

When the auctioned piece arrives by postal parcel, the lamp is sometimes in pitiful condition because it is completely filthy, the kerosene/paraffin tank is encrusted on the inside, the burner is gummed up so that the wick knob cannot be operated. First, the lamp parts must be taken apart as far as possible and carefully cleaned. After possibly necessary repair work, one has to decide which type of shade might fit best so that the lamp later appears harmonious in dimension, colour and style. The search for a suitable shade opens a new phase of browsing and weighing on eBay. This can be a lot of fun and open up a new dimension to the collecting instinct, namely completing an old piece according to one's own taste and imagination.

When I have bought an old kerosene/paraffin lamp on eBay and finally hold it in my hands, I feel like I am touching a piece of human history. The lamps are mostly 100 years old and older. The idea of how many people have owned this lamp, lit it, worked by its light, read, prayed and eaten fills me with awe. The former owners are long dead, but the lamp in my hands has somehow survived the ages, survived wars and man's destructiveness, given light to generations, only to be taken disregarded to a cellar or attic at some point and forgotten. They are dirty, the chimney is sooty, the glass shade is broken and their light is extinguished... People don't need them anymore; they are a relic of old, backward times.

When I clean and reassemble such a lamp, when I polish the completely blackened burner to a new high gloss, when I add the missing chimney, I have the inner feeling that I am breathing new life into the lamp that I thought was dead. I know that sounds rather romantic, even almost esoteric, and some rational people would shake their heads with a smile, but what I am writing here is true. Without this feeling - even compassion - all collecting is rather a hollow wanting to possess, to gather, to pile up. Only this loving work of cleaning and repairing, polishing and adding makes the acquired piece into a piece of your own. I then have the feeling that I have not acquired this one lamp, but have created it anew. It takes on new life through the work of my hands. And later, when I have succeeded in getting a matching shade for the lamp, and shortly afterwards the lamp sends out its light again after a very long time, because I have filled it with kerosene/paraffin and lit it, when it shines and glows in all its beauty (even simple lamps can be beautiful!), sending out a mystical-beautiful, old-fashioned-romantic light into the world through its new shade, then I also feel that it has found its old dignity again. It is not a filthy, rather disposable piece, but an old, even more venerable lamp, artistically and beautifully crafted, breathing a piece of nostalgia into every modern room.

It is precisely this dimension of my collector's soul that makes eBay a desirable hunting ground for me. The initial ignorance and uncertainty have largely disappeared and I can tell if the specimen offered is something valuable (not in terms of money, but in terms of its history or provenance), something worth upgrading. Sometimes a really rare, valuable lamp is offered on eBay. And these lamps get high hammer prices, because many other collectors, just like me, are anxious to buy the lamp at auction for themselves. Then the price goes far beyond what you yourself are willing to spend for the lamp. Then you have to accept defeat (I have experienced many defeats, but I have also won many victories!). Nevertheless, I have bought some of my most beautiful and valuable lamps at eBay auctions.

I hope I have been able to explain to some extent my reasons for choosing eBay as my very own main source, despite all the imponderables and unpleasant surprises that are always to be found here.


Shipping and Insurance

Lamps purchased at auctions and on eBay must be sent by parcel post. Some lamps consist of fragile parts and must be packed with special care and in such a way that they are safe for transport. Auction houses and dealers who offer their goods on eBay (or similar portals) manage this without any problems; they have a lot of experience in this. The situation is different when private individuals have to pack a fragile item. I have experienced all sorts of packaging skills with my lamps. The very worst packaging was with a very high quality lamp from Hinks & Son (L.164), whose owner had simply put it as it was, without any further packaging materials, without the slightest protective measures, into a cardboard box and brought it to the post office. The lamp consisted (thank goodness) only of ornate metal objects, but they arrived at me several times broken and neatly dented. I did a lot of work to put them back into shape and salvage them. The stark opposite of this was the packaging of a high-quality English tulip shade. The sender had made a cage for it out of wooden slats that fitted in every way, filled the spaces in between with pieces of Styrofoam cut to fit exactly and wrapped the whole thing in several metres of transparent film. I had to spend a lot of time freeing the shade from its packaging.

In the case of damaged lamps, the question arises as to whether the damage will be compensated by the insurance company. The goods in transit are insured up to a certain limit (in Germany, for example, up to 500 euros, possibly depending on the size or weight of the package). However, if you want to make a claim about damaged goods, the parcel services require that you send the parcel with all its contents to a special service address, so that experts can assess whether the goods were packed well and safely by the sender. The clarification of this question decides whether the sender or the parcel service should compensate for the damage. I only tried once to enforce my rights in this way, and never again! The whole effort was disproportionately high and not justified. Broken glass chimneys can be replaced easily; broken glass fonts can be replaced with some skill and understanding; broken vases made of glass, porcelain, etc. cannot be replaced, because finding the same antique object again borders on miracles! In the case of high-quality porcelain, one seeks an experienced "porcelain doctor" (which makes the matter quite expensive); in the case of broken glass, one simply forgets the loss...

I have to admit here for "newcomers": the shipping costs from abroad are steep. What is sent by parcel for just 7-10 euros in Germany often costs 30-40 euros from other European countries, and even more from overseas (depending on the weight). It doesn't really matter if the goods are sent from an area very close to the border; cross-border parcel post is disproportionately expensive. You have to bear this in mind when you buy something from abroad and have it sent home by post. If you want to have a lamp sent from a country that does not belong to the European Union, you will have to pay customs duties on top of the high shipping costs! Unfortunately, Switzerland, the USA, Canada and now also Great Britain belong to such countries, and German customs charges 19% of the total cost (i.e. purchase price + shipping costs) as VAT! So it quickly becomes clear to every reader: a valuable kerosene/paraffin lamp from the USA costs considerably more than the purchase price!

Apart from the sources of kerosene/paraffin lamps discussed above, there are several other possibilities: You can get a lamp as a gift or inherit it, you can buy lamps from another collector, and so on.


Lumière de L'Œil by Monsieur Ara

And of course there is also the possibility to buy old lamps from my friend Ara Kebapcioglu in Paris! He is, as far as I know, the only one who runs an antique shop only with old lamps. This makes him an antique dealer specialised in lamps, and one who really knows everything about this collecting field. He has meticulously studied the existing and available literature on old lamps and lighting techniques; with over 800 books, brochures, magazines, catalogues, etc. on lamps, he has built up a valuable reference library. His shop is really full of all different kinds of old lamps; he sells not only kerosene/paraffin lamps, but also old gas lamps, spirit lamps, even electric lamps.

A special area are his lamps with a hanging of glass beads ("fringe lamps"), which he painstakingly assembles by hand from old patterns or from his own designs. In the back of his shop he has set up a small museum where he has placed all kinds of burners, chimneys, etc. He organises special exhibitions in museums; he writes technical articles in museum catalogues, magazines, reference books; he talks in TV recordings about the last gas lamps in Paris street lighting; his expertise is widely recognised. His lamps for sale are all complete and entire; he repairs lamps very competently and advises customers on questions that arise. However, as a true antique dealer, he also charges high prices, you have to know that. You can't get bargains with him; but you will get lamps that have been authentically completed and function perfectly.

I can highly recommend him as a very well-read person and his little shop as a treasure chest to anyone who is in Paris and interested in lamps. Interested people from Germany without any knowledge of French will be surprised: Ara speaks perfect, well-groomed German! The same goes for his English. If the way to Paris seems too far, you can at least have a look at his website; it is set up in four languages: French, English, German and Turkish.

Address: 4 rue Flatters – 75005 Paris