Collecting and Displaying Antique Hand Fans

Fans have a long and decorated history. Fans have refreshed the air and drive away insects for monarchs of ancient kingdoms (including Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and Greece). Some fans were given as a gift by Monteczuma to Hernan Cortes and by Christopher Columbus to Queen Elisabeth. Fans also figured in the literary works of Euripides, Tibulo, Menandro and Ovidio.

In China, the ladies used fans to hide their faces and maintain a mysterious aura to visitors. During the Victorian Era, fans evolved into folding versions, which the maidens effectively used as a subtle “communications device”. For instance, twirling the fan in one’s left hand tells an avid suitor that the bearer is already in love with another while drawing the fan across the cheek says, “I love you.”

Fans eventually became an ornamental object that has long interested collectors all over the world. Today, fans are sought-after collector’s items. Both collectors of fans, as well as theme-based memorabilia, will have an interest in the same fans. For instance, a collector of vintage clothes and a collector of fans will be attracted to Victoria-era fans. This is one of the reasons for the scarcity of fans. Another reason is that a number of antique fans have been damaged due to improper handling and storage.

Folding fans are composed of three main parts – the leaf, the monture and the head. The leaf, which can be made of materials such as lace, satin or feathers, is the part that features the decorative aspects of the fan. The monture is where the leaf is neatly folded into and is composed of the sticks, the ribs (where parts of the leaf are attached), and the outside guards. Meanwhile, the head (which is the bottom part) anchors the sticks, ribs and outside guards. The monture and head may be made from tortoise-shell, mother of pearl, ivory, wood or in more modern times, celluloid.

Here are some tips for those considering a folding fan collection:

  • Start your collection with finds from antique shops and flea markets. These fans are also available on eBay and other similar websites. However, you should carefully research the authenticity and quality of your fans.
  • If you have the budget, you can also bid for fans at auction houses.
  • If antique fans are way out of your budget, you can also consider decorative fans.
  • Catalog your fans. List down the name, if you can have it, history, the era it was produced and other details such as its value, the materials and embellishments used and its dimensions.
  • Avoid handling the fans to prevent damage. Antique fans may be very delicate and vulnerable to tearing and breaking.
  • If you do handle the fans, do so with care. Slowly open and close folding fans.
  • You may store fans in their original cases or in another box. Each fan should be wrapped on its own using acid free tissue.
  • There are also custom display cases made specifically for fans. These fan cases are essentially frames made in the shape of a fan. When using these display cases to showcase your antique fan collection, check if UV protective glass is available. This minimizes the damage caused by both UV rays from the sun as well as artificial light. In addition, make sure that all materials that touch the fan are acid free materials.
  • Another option is to use a shadow box frame as your display case.
  • Even when your display cases are equipped with UV protective glass, keep them away from direct sunlight, as well as away from sources of heat or cold (i.e. near the air conditioner or the fireplace).
  • Take note that there are fans that are not suited for framing. For instance, silk and lace fans may need some exposure to the air to keep them from disintegrating.
27th Jun 2014 Eric Morgan

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