How to Buy Vintage Eyewear, Case Study 1 – The Time I Scored Pope Leo X’s Quizzing Glass

How about a regular piece on vintage eyewear, vintage sunglasses, thrifting war stories, interesting facts, the occasional “how to” piece etc. on Thursdays?

I assembled a museum grade collection that made up the visual content of a 400 page book. I’ll explain how and why some other time. All I’ll say for now is I acquired a lot on eBay.

If you’re interested in fashion and fashion history eBay can be more interesting than T.V. and more educational than school. The problem is all the garbage you need to sift through to find the gemstones. Even now scrolling down endless rows of ugly junk still gives me PTSD symptoms.

But having strong niche expertise can be fun.

The earliest corrective vision devices for nearsightedness were held by a handle like magnifying glasses but instead of convex lenses that made objects look bigger they had concave lenses that made objects appear smaller.

Pope Leo X had one. (By the way, the description of him in the Catholic Encyclopedia is great: “Unfortunately he realized the hopes only of the artists, literati, and worldlings who looked upon the papal court as a centre of amusement.

Leo’s personal appearance has been perpetuated for us in Raphael’s celebrated picture at the Pitti Gallery in Florence, which represents him with Cardinals Medici and Rossi. He was not a handsome man. His fat, shiny, effeminate countenance with weak eyes protrudes in the picture from under a close-fitting cap. The unwieldy body is supported by thin legs. His movements were sluggish and during ecclesiastical functions his corpulence made him constantly wipe the perspiration from his face and hands, to the distress of the bystanders. But when he laughed or spoke the unpleasant impression vanished. He had an agreeable voice, knew how to express himself with elegance and vivacity, and his manner was easy and gracious. “Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us”, he is said to have remarked after his election.”)

Here’s the painting in question by Raphael:

Pope Leo X holding minifier by Raphael

Pope Leo X holding minifier as painted by Raphael

Note the object that looks like a very early quizzing glass in his left hand.

So I’m wandering around eBay looking for cool stuff, numb from scrolling through an avalanche of garbage, and I see one of these things. The seller lists it as an “Unusual Magnifying Glass”. The listing goes on to describe a strange magnifying glass that makes objects smaller. He has no idea what it is! O.K., O.K… Post title nonwithstanding it didn’t belong to Leo X as far as I know, but still… Wow!

The biggest threat in a situation like this is another knowledgeable niche collector. Before eBay made everybody’s identity hidden you knew exactly who they were. In the small world of eyewear collecting you knew some personally. For an object like this I most feared a member of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors’ Club. One of those elderly English opticians would swoop down on a piece like this like an eagle on a bunny rabbit.

But would they find it? The seller listed it poorly and most searches wouldn’t find it.

Although I generally use a sniping program to automatically bid at the last moment, I remember watching to see what would happen. I bid as high as I could afford at the time. Several hundred dollars. But would it be enough? The seconds counted down… With six seconds to go my bid was placed… 5…4…3…2…1… Zero.

I won!

Closing price: $40!

It got its own page in the book and it’s my pleasure to share it with you again:


The lesson here is when thrifting on eBay remember: the clueless seller is your best friend. Try to imagine how someone ignorant of an item would try to describe it. I often found the term “Magnifying Glass” was a catch all for quizzing glasses, monocles and other curiosities.

Like this one!

You may also like...