Gesso and Ormolu Decoration – Estate Sale & Auction Finds to look for

When shopping at estate sales or auctions you often come across items that attract you, but you have no idea what they are.

Let’s take a look at two forms of decoration.

Gesso is a white paint mixture made up of chalk, gypsum, a binder and some pigment.

It has been used for over a century and originally was called Italian gesso. The original binder material was glue made from rabbit skin. The color of the gesso was usually white or off white. It could be applied and manipulated much the same as cake frosting and then would harden.

Gesso is often gilded or painted. As it ages, it becomes fragile. You will find some articles with gesso that may have cracks. If a piece of gesso comes off (depending on how it breaks) you may be able to glue it back on or find a restorer. Today you can even find jars of gesso being sold for repair or added decoration.

Here is an excellent example of a mirror with gilt gesso that will be in an upcoming auction.

mirror with gesso decorationOrmolu is a French word for ground or pounded gold.

Originally the process known as mercury gilding or fire gilding involved a solution of nitrate mercury that could be applied to bronze, copper, or brass.

No true ormolu has been produced in France since 1830 because of a law that was to stop the danger of using mercury. Prior to this law the average gilder did not live beyond the age of 40. Other methods came into use including electroplating. A later substitute called Pomponne came into use with a mixture of copper and zinc and sometimes tin.

Craftsman apply ormolu for decorative mountings. It can be found on furniture, porcelain, lighting, and clocks.

Here is an example of a double inkwell in with ormolu frame and ornamentation from an estate sale.

double inkwell in ormolu frame

Shopping at estate sales and auctions presents many opportunities to find old world style craftsmanship. Keep your eyes open.