Paperweights: An Obsession

September 27th, 2010

I remember the first piece of art I ever bought.  I was in Montreal with a friend, frolicking in a new city for a long weekend, escaping from the horrors of my first real job after business school.   From Montreal we darted to Quebec City and walked the charming streets, indulging in Raclette and drinking wine during the day.  It was wonderful!

At some point we stumbled into an art gallery and I was captivated by a small, sculptural chunk of blue glass.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  I couldn’t put it down.  I couldn’t believe the power that it had over me and I had to have it.   And, for the first time, I was actually in a position to buy something that I loved.  I finally had the money and I finally had a place to put it!  Done.  The piece was mine, and the obsession with having art around me and in my everyday life had begun.

Over the years I have bought many, many pieces of art.  Some small, some big.   Some by important artists, some are my own discoveries.  Each has held a different and particular meaning for me and each is very special, conjuring up both emotions and memories.   Paperweights, stemming from that first purchase in Quebec City, remain particularly captivating for me: how the glass dome magnifies the glass sculpture inside, how difficult it is to master to art of encapsulating the interior glass setting, and the drive of the artists to keep this little known art form alive.

Glass making dates back to the time of the Egyptians, which is incredible given the technology we now use to anneal pieces that are sculpted at over 2500 degrees.  Paperweights had their big artistic push during the art salons in Paris in 1847 – 1849, and these weights are highly sought after today.  Paperweight collectors are obsessive about their gems, and good and rare antique paperweights range from $2000 – $35000. Modern paperweights range from $250 – $5000.   Paperweight collectors don’t have 3 or 4; serious, addicted collectors have hundreds.

The L.H. Selman Gallery – featuring fine glass paperweights, in a gorgeous space on the 2nd floor of The Fine Arts Building – took up residence in Chicago last year, moving here from California.  The showroom boasts over 500 weights – yes, 500 paperweights! – each more beautiful than the next.   I am thrilled to have them in the city and I like to lose myself in their gallery. I find it truly dreamy to be around so many weights at once.

This weekend the L.H. Selman Gallery will hold their annual Paperweight Weekend, kicking off on Friday afternoon, October 1, with a reception/cocktail party from 4 PM – 6 PM. On October 2 and 3 there will be tours of the Art Institute’s famous Rubloff Collection and the beginning of a paperweight auction, along with other events, including a luncheon at Cliff Dwellers and seeing new work by visiting paperweight artist Melissa Ayotte.   You can sign up on their site.

If a entire weekend of paperweights doesn’t work for your schedule, give yourself a treat and visit the L.H. Selman Gallery the next time you are around The Fine Arts Building to discover the true artistry and beauty behind glass paperweights.  I promise that you will be dazzled by the pure gem-like quality of the weights. You may even become a collector, on your way to amassing several hundred.

-Elysabeth Alfano

Elysabeth Alfano is the creator, executive producer, co-producer and host of Fear No ART Chicago on WTTW.  She is also the creator, executive producer, writer and host of Art Scene on

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