Treasures: Does this serving tray include actual butterfly wings?

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I have a glass serving tray that has been decorated with butterfly wings. The tray seems to have some sort of Art Deco design, with an exotic-bird pattern in the background instead of images of butterflies. It has gold-trimmed detailed etchings. I also noticed that it has a newspaper clipping, in German, in the back underneath a picture. The picture has a tag with "Czechoslovakia" written on it. Any information as to date and value would be greatly appreciated.


M.G., Augusta, Ga.

Dear M.G.:

This piece perplexes us. Items decorated with the wings of butterflies are usually a bit more flamboyant than this example.

Often, the backgrounds of these pieces are covered with the spectacular, iridescent wings of the peacock-blue morpho butterfly. This butterfly is a native of South America, but we have found references to it as having been raised on farms in Europe, primarily to be used in making small pictures and jewelry.

But the background on this piece appears to be painted solid black, and we find that a bit troubling. We have also examined the photograph with a magnifying glass and are not convinced that butterfly wings were used at all.

For those who have a picture in your mind of cruel individuals tearing the wings off living butterflies to make items like these, put your mind at rest. It is our understanding that -- at least these days -- the wings are harvested from butterflies that have lived out their life predator-free, and upon their death the wings are harvested. We cannot assert that it has always been this way, but for modern pieces we understand this is the procedure.

We recommend that M.G. use a powerful magnifying instrument to examine the areas that are supposed to be decorated with butterfly wings. She should see scales if butterfly wings were used. However, many pieces were made using colored foil, and a magnifying glass will reveal this deception instantly (bright, shiny surface and no telltale scales).

Also -- and we believe this to be a stronger possibility -- the magnifying glass may reveal feathers. Many pictures were made for the tourist trade using feathers taken from exotic birds. Feathers from less-exotic birds were used as well, but these were dyed and manipulated to look more like the plumage from rarer species (the garish colors from artificial dyes should be apparent).

We know that the label on the front of the tray reads "made with butterfly wings," but that appears to be the work of a secondary seller and not a label used when the tray was made or first sold. It appears to be the work of a more recent vendor. As for the "Czechoslovakia" label in back, this means that the tray could not possibly be any older than 1918, when a country by that name first came into being.

We believe this tray was made sometime between the 1930s and the '60s, and feel comfortable with a circa-1950 date. If a large quantity of butterfly wings had been used, the insurance value should be in the $150-$250 range. But if foil or feathers are detected, the price drops by two-thirds or more.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of  "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, PO Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. E-mail them at