Back in the 1970s, while scouring a North Carolina flea market, a large, tin wall mirror with raised floral decorations caught my eye. So did the $25 price tag. These days, the price could be several hundred dollars. This ancient tin craft continues in New Mexico with many types of decorative objects, ranging from chandeliers and trinket boxes to religious pieces to furniture. It is known as “Santa Fe style” décor.
Historically, it goes back to the 16th century and was known as “hojalata.” Over the decades it has been known as “Spanish Colonial” art. The tin was cut, shaped and embossed with a pattern. Some items were painted with colorful lacquer.
In the 19th century, settlers moving West brought food and lamp oil stored in 5-gallon tin cans, which were tossed when empty. Many ended up in New Mexico. These tin cans were rescued by Mexican artisans who carried on the ancient art of ornamental tin folk art. The years of 1860 to 1890 are considered the golden age of Mexican tin art. Homes were decorated with tin mirrors, candle holders, serving trays and more. There were even toys made for children. Religious objects were made for homes as well as churches. However, by the end of the 19th century, its popularity declined. Items were stored and forgotten, or tossed. It was known as “the poor man’s silver.”
In the 1930s, there was a revival of interest, so much so that the Spanish Colonial Arts Society was founded. However, the tin art was not being seriously collected. Items were made in the Spanish Colonial style. But the tin cans were no longer being made in huge sizes due to the invention of mass-produced small food cans. So, artisans began working with large rolls of tin.
During the 1970s, collectors were taking interest again in Sante Fe-style tin art and some early collector items came to top auction galleries. These auctions also included furniture, pottery and glass.
CLUES: The craft has never stopped being made. Currently, there are many artisans creating tin objects in both old and contemporary styles. Their work is usually signed and sometimes stamped “Mexico.” Their tools are simple. They include a hammer, small tin punches, tin shears and a soldering iron. Objects like ornate chandeliers can cost thousands of dollars.
Some of the contemporary workshops have developed a signature press, such as a flower, star or geometrical shape stamped onto the back or bottom of the tin.
Prices for most vintage pieces are under $100. Make sure that if the seller says the piece is old or vintage, that you don’t pay too much. Get a letter of authenticity.