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Collector Eric Nilson recalls the time that he bought a teapot from a London shop selling choice examples of 18th-century, English porcelain.
"And what will you do with it?" the saleswoman asked him as he stood by the counter.
"Use it," Nilson said brightly, just as he used each of his 300 other pots.
"Well, then we shan't sell it to you," she announced, and drew it back to her bosom.
Porcelain has prompted such hoarding the world over since it was first created for the Tang dynasty emperors in the seventh century. Then it was regarded so highly that only royal lips were allowed to drink from it. Europeans deciphered the formula for this glassy-smooth ceramic in the early 18th century, whereupon it became the rage of the aristocracy. Unlike stoneware and earthenware, china, as it came to be known, was translucent and ethereal; assumed sculptural forms as easily as silver; and was heat-resistant—in other words, you wouldn't burn your lips on a china cup filled with hot tea, then the new fashion.
Having a porcelain factory on palace grounds became a sign of prestige, and every nobleman who could afford it commissioned a porcelain service bearing his coat of arms. Porcelain objects were even exchanged as gifts among diplomats. The most advanced technology and fine artistry were being channeled into cups, saucers, soup tureens, and figures, as well as a wide range of utilitarian objects now antiquated: bonbonnières, trifles, snuff boxes, desk sets, posy holders, pastille burners (which improved the fragrance of a room).
Since then this brittle, white ware, which vitrifies, or converts to glass at very high temperature, has been produced and reproduced in vast quantity and variety. Yet as the lady selling teapots in London implied, there is porcelain and then there is Porcelain, the treasure that belongs under glass. Distinguishing between the two is not easy for beginning collectors. Serious academic collectors prefer pieces made in the first 10 years of a factory's life, when technique was still trying to catch up with inspiration and accomplished painters and modelers were intimately involved with production, rather than supervising assembly lines of underlings. Others—especially Americans—prefer technical perfection.
"Americans tend to want something that has technologically arrived," says Letitia Roberts, senior international specialist of European Ceramics and Chinese Export Porcelain at Sotheby's New York. "They favor gilded dinner services from the Regency period in England—such as Royal Worcester, Minton, and Coalport—that look as expensive as they are. The English buy funny little blue-and-white pieces made with an underglaze that seem small and insignificant to us. They love researching. If Americans were willing to do the research, they would find that prices for those sorts of things are much lower in the United States than abroad."
According to dealers and auctioneers, there are good reasons for novices to focus their collection on the 18th century.
First, 18th-century porcelain is more valuable because there's less of it—and yet you can sometimes find it at lower prices than 19th-century pieces. Before the Industrial Revolution each course of a meal was served on a different design of porcelain. But by 1830 the Industrial Revolution had greatly increased porcelain production and the large, formal dinner service was a way of proper English life. Wedgwood, known for its hallmark neoclassical motifs inspired by Pompeii and inventive stonelike surfaces resembling agate and jasper, pioneered the system of ordering china patterns in advance. "You can buy a great eighteenth-century piece for well under $1,000—less than you'd pay for a far less than great nineteenth-century piece that is bigger and glitzier," Roberts notes. "If you're prepared to go to the $10,000 to $15,000 range you can go to the top. The value you get for your money with eighteenth-century porcelain is very good."
Second, to expert eyes 18th-century porcelain is often more beautiful. (Hard-core connoisseurs draw the line at 1763, the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, claiming that anything made after that is uninteresting.) "I find that people really respond to the decoration of the old sets," states Joan Boening, owner of James Robinson in New York, alluding to the ornamental detail, such as gilding, which was applied by hand, giving the plates a warmer look. "Anything made in the eighteenth century seems to feel more interesting," says John Sandon of Phillips Fine Art and Auctioneers, author of the excellent beginner's guide Antique Porcelain (Antique Collectors' Club, 1997). "They had more difficulties with the material back then."
At the high end you're often paying for provenance or the artisanal touch of a master modeler or painter. For instance, a Meissen vase from the hand of Johann Friedrich Böttger, the German chemist who first deciphered the Chinese formula for porcelain in 1709, has the aura of the Holy Grail and of course is priced to match: A jar and cover from 1715 earned £7,000 ($11,470) at Bonhams in London last year. A very rare 1735 Meissen teapot in the form of a squirrel by master modeler Johann Joachim Kändler (1706-75) goes for $6,600 at The Meissen Shop in Palm Beach, Florida.
Determining Authenticity More than availability or even price, the critical step in purchasing is confirming the authenticity of the piece. As Boening puts it, "it's not something you can teach someone in a day." You must look at a series of variables, including the type of paste used (hard or soft); the quality of the painting and modeling; and the paint colors. Moreover, when a piece was produced by a given factory is also crucial, for some periods of a factory's output are more prized than others, depending on the artistic talents of the director of decorative artists at the time. For example, pieces that were produced by the great European factories that sprang up during the excitement of early royal subsidy—Meissen in Germany, Vienna in Austria (from the Du Paquier period, 1719-44; even rarer than Meissen), Sèvres in France, Royal Copenhagen in Denmark, St. Petersburg in Russia—are very valuable. So are pieces of exquisite artistic merit from factories that thrived for mere decades, including Capodimonte (1743-59) in Italy, known for its dynamically sculpted figures; the firms of Swansea and Nantgarw in Wales (ca. 1813-22), whose glassy floral glazes in the Sèvres style have been widely forged; and the factories of St. Cloud and Mennecy in France, which were forced to close when Louis XV decreed that only his royal factory, Sèvres, could use gilding. One firm, St. James's of England, survived only from 1749 to 1759 and was known for making porcelain toys such as scent bottles, seals, and bonbonnières. Its pieces are among the rarest of 18th-century porcelain.
Least reliable in determining authenticity is the factory mark, since it is most easily and frequently forged or rubbed off (see On the Mark). That's not to say you should ignore it: Factory periods are often identified by particular marks. For example, Chelsea, founded by Nicholas Sprimont ca. 1745, produced work that falls into four periods—each one identified by a distinctive mark. They include: the Red Anchor Period (1752-56), heavily influenced by Meissen, and the Gold Anchor Period (1756-69), which was influenced by Sèvres.
Then there is the problem of imitations. Cross-pollination between East and West as well as reproductions of other factories' earlier styles advanced porcelain's progress over time. In the late 19th century, for instance, factories in Dresden flooded the porcelain market with inexpensive copies of Meissen-style Rococo porcelain figures. Even Meissen itself reissued many of its own precious, 18th-century figure models throughout the centuries, making it quite difficult to determine their exact date of manufacture as well as their relative value.
"When you're spending large amounts of money, you have to be pretty careful that something isn't a nineteenth-century piece in the eighteenth-century style," says London dealer Adrian Sassoon, who specializes in 18th-century Sèvres.
For example, excellent copies of 18th-century Sèvres were painted in England in 1820 using Sèvres "blanks," or undecorated plates, retrieved from the factory after the French Revolution. These plates have been passed down through families as the real thing, when in reality they are worth much less. "It's the early things that tend to be copied, not the late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain," says Boening. "A lot of dealers have been fooled." And, she adds, "People try to hide repairs. That's the biggest problem for us."
But even porcelain imitations can have a certain status. Victorian reproductions of 18th-century scent bottles and figures that were rendered by the great French porcelain firm Edmé Samson and Cie—which was famous for its ability to copy pieces with an exactitude that still fools experts in the field—are now sold at auction. A pair of Samson and Cie figures can range from $300 to $500.
Ultimately, acquiring expertise in this area—as with any specialty—comes only with experience. "It has a lot to do with touch," explains Boening. "When I started in the business twenty years ago, my father had me moving porcelain around the store just to get used to the touch. You have to get the feel of it."
Choosing a Style "The best investment is the best of everything, whether it's German, French, or English," says Paul Vandekar, the owner of Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, a New York shop that sells 18th- and 19th-century ceramics, furniture, and art. That's true, but collectors frequently specialize in one country's output, with Continental porcelain generally priced higher than English.
Those who find beauty in delicate Rococo or Baroque centerpieces—supported by china cupids, modeled roses, and leafy bowers—gravitate toward German porcelain, which is extremely plastic and fires to a bluish-white hue. It also remains among the most expensive and copied to date—particularly Meissen.
However, "to a collector of English porcelain the German looks too perfect," says New York dealer Jill Fenichell. In the early years of English porcelain production, manufacturers had to work with clumsier soft pastes and relied on whimsy, fashion, and imitation of popular Continental and Oriental styles to sell their wares.
By the Regency period (1811-20), English porcelain had acquired a royal grandeur, particularly the heavily gilded work of the Worcester factory through its many incarnations: Flight, Barr and Barr; or Barr, Flight and Barr, a producer of spectacular, naturalistically painted feathers and shells.
French porcelain is typified by the grand Imperial piece—with colored grounds and dramatic gilding—or creamy-white plates that are delicately painted with Watteau-esque landscapes and flowers. Early Sèvres, with its subtle charm, is a favorite, with soft-paste Sèvres being more expensive.
It takes approximately 20 years from the time of purchase for a porcelain piece to turn a significant profit at resale. Across the board, porcelain from well-known factories has held its value, and now the work of the smaller German factories is also going up in price. "Höchst, Frankenthal, Fürstenberg, and Nymphenburg were second-tier," says Sotheby's Roberts, "but they're really coming into their own now and can be expensive." In recent years other pieces that have shot up in value include:
• Fine-quality Coalport, Wedgwood lustreware, Royal Crown Derby, and Royal Worcester (including turn-of-the-century "blush ivory" pieces painted with florals);
• 18th-century Sèvres;
• 19th-century Meissen;
• English Regency porcelain that features painted motifs of shells (such as those that were painted by Thomas Baxter at Barr, Flight and Barr ca. 1810), feathers (for instance, Chamberlain's Worcester ca. 1840), botanicals, and fruits;
• Nineteenth-century Belleek, the factory in Northern Ireland that is known for its shell, fish, and sea-urchin designs in pale, eggshell-thin, nacreous glazes;
• Pairs of French Empire vases;
• Pieces by such early-20th-century studio ceramicists as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper; Art Nouveau, especially Sèvres porcelain and British art pottery of the Arts & Crafts Movement, including the blue-and-white Florian vases by William Moorcroft for Macintyre & Co.; and Art Deco.
Getting Started Many porcelain collectors begin by selecting a certain style, period, or factory. Others are drawn to a particular glazing technique or form, such as snuff boxes, vases, tea caddies, ice buckets. Pairs of animal figures are always popular, including colorful parrots (typical of early Meissen) and dogs like hounds and pugs (see Top Breed).
One of the patterns with the strongest following is Japanese Imari, which is prevalent throughout European porcelain. Fashioned with midnight blue, russet red, and gilding, the Imari botanical or geometric pattern was applied to dinnerware in different versions by Spode (1815-25), Chamberlain's Worcester (ca. 1820, in a pattern that was called Tobacco Leaf), and Royal Crown Derby (1890-1915, in patterns such as Old Witches, Cigar, and King).
Unusually shaped, ornamental dessert plates are also popular starting points for collections, as are fruit coolers perched on a stand. "If people are collecting porcelain piece by piece they tend to prefer a lozenge- or shell-shaped dessert plate rather than a round plate," Boening says, pointing out that such plates are often much prettier to display.
Teapots, of course, are eternal favorites. "There's something about looking at repeated forms that is interesting," states Nilson, who has amassed his 300 teapots over the past 10 years from dealers and auction houses in the United States and London, particularly shops along Kensington Church Street and around St. James's. On display at his home in a library in place of books, Nilson's teapots include early examples of English factories like Chamberlain's Worcester, Derby, and Coalport and have cost from $150 to $8,000 each. His expertise has, to a large extent, been acquired through trial and error, as well as the support of Fenichell, his dealer in Manhattan. Nilson asked Fenichell to review his collection, and as a result discovered that a teapot he'd bought in Cleveland, where he lives, had been painted by a well-known French artist and was worth a lot more than he'd paid for it. But he hasn't always been so lucky: On one occasion he purchased what turned out to be a damaged teapot from a respectable New York dealer.
"I've learned what I know primarily by being dogged about shopping," he says. "I have shopped the world over. And after looking at literally thousands of things, I can tell what makes a delicate hand in painting, and which are truly unusual shapes, colors, and styles of decoration. I'm now a better judge of condition and am buying better examples of things I like."
Nilson's most cherished find: a rare "His" teapot from a "His and Her" set made by Worcester for the seventh earl of Stormont in the late 1700s. With its bright blue swags of color, "it's one of only three square-sided pots Worcester ever made," he says proudly.
Whereas earthenware is often hand-molded at the potter's wheel, porcelain is formed by mechanical methods. Press-molding, which is used to create surface relief patterns, involves pressing clay into a plaster-of-Paris mold. With slip-casting, liquid clay is poured into a mold and the excess seeps out through a hole at the base so that the piece remains hollow. Complicated figure groups are made from many individual castings. Here are surface decoration terms worth knowing.
Applied decoration That which creates surface relief. This includes "sprigging," or extracting clay from a press mold and attaching it to a body with slip (clay paste diluted to the consistency of cream); and "pate-sur-pate," the delicate build up of painted layers of slip to create a cameo effect.
Burnishing Polishing gilded surfaces to give them a rich, soft color and allow them to be tooled with surface designs.
Enameling Colors applied over glaze and fired at low temperatures to produce a wide range of rich, lustrous colors.
Gilding The application of gold leaf fired at low temperature. Colors range from a bright metallic to a dull honey. Raised gilding is fine gold painted over raised enamel to give porcelain the appearance of being jeweled in solid gold.
Luster Iridescent surface produced by painting a mix of dissolved oxides, acid, and oil onto glazed porcelain, then firing it.
Printing Decoration by transfer-printing or lithographic printing, both of which eliminate handwork. In transfer-printing, which was invented in the mid-18th century, an impression is engraved onto a copper plate then transferred onto a ceramic surface using transfer paper and ink. Often a single color—blue—is used. In lithographic printing, which was developed in the mid-19th century and is often polychromatic, a design etched in stone is used in place of the copper-plate engraving.
Reticulation Decoration created by piercing porcelain with a sharp tool when it's leather-hard.
Underglazing Colors fixed to the porcelain the first time it's fired.
On The Mark
In the 18th century factories began placing "marks"—monograms, symbols, initials, letters, swords, such as Meissen's crossed blue swords of Saxony, or simply the factory name—on the bottom of their wares. These marks were hand-painted in underglaze or overglaze enamels, incised by hand, or impressed with a stamp. In 1842 the English began to use diamond marks for patented porcelain patterns, with letters and numbers in the corners to indicate dates, continuing until 1883, when the registration number replaced the diamond mark. In addition to marks, porcelain sometimes bore the signatures of the painter, modeler, gilder, or by the 19th century, the retailer. It wasn't until the 20th century that pieces began to bear the words Made in England and Bone China.
Because many factories altered their marks over decades, marks are only one way to date pieces—if you can distinguish between authentic pieces and forgeries.
In The Mix
Hard-paste porcelain Translucent, glassy-smooth, and very white. It was discovered by Johann Friedrich Böttger of Meissen in 1710 and is made of kaolin (a white clay) and feldspathic rock (a form of granite). It's fired at high temperature, at which point the rock melts to a glasslike substance, which is held in shape by the clay.
Soft-paste porcelain More opaque and less pliable than hard-paste porcelain, with a body color ranging from pure white to gray. It's made by mixing kaolin with ground glass or other minerals. The creamy surface and vivid color of 18th-century Sèvres was made possible by soft paste. In the 1780s the company switched to hard paste.
Bone china Pure white. It's been produced by the British porcelain industry since 1820, when it was allegedly developed by Josiah Spode as an economy measure. It uses calcified bone as a strengthener.
No porcelain animal figure has been as beloved as the pug, which first appeared on ancient Chinese ceramics and tombs (pugs were originally bred by eunuchs of the Imperial Palace for the Chinese emperor), then later became the 18th-century European pet of royalty. "Other animals and creatures have come and gone, but the passion for pugs never seems to have waned," says Letitia Roberts, senior international specialist of European Ceramics and Chinese Export Porcelain at Sotheby's New York.
The most famous pugs are those produced by Germany's Meissen factory, which launched the figure craze at the beginning of the 18th century. Glazed white, Meissen pugs were fired without a base—something no other maker was doing at the time—and modeled with anatomical accuracy, if surreal expressions, after the pets of Count Brühl, the factory manager. Pug figures of this era, featured with cropped ears and the bell collars of the day, are avidly collected and are expensive: A small pair, male and female, can sell for $18,000.
However, some porcelain pugs—especially those that were produced en masse by English factories such as Derby and Rockingham—can be had for as little as $300.
According to Jody Wilkie, head of European Ceramics at Christie's New York, antique dinner services are more beautiful than contemporary ones. "When you put an old and new service from most manufacturers next to each other," she says, "the new one has a much harsher feel to it."
Many of the dinner services manufactured today are partly printed, and the gilding and painting aren't applied freehand. Then there's the price difference. Whereas new services frequently cost $50,000, if you shop at auction, Wilkie says, "it's possible to come away with a full antique service for $3,000. If the competition isn't there to push the price up, it might just be granny's wedding present from 1900 that is estimated at a mere ten dollars a plate."
Buying a new service, however, does guarantee a certain level of perfection. "With an old service you're not going to get twelve of every single shape, and some pieces may have a chip," Wilkie cautions, adding that sauce boats are often stained. Some of the top 19th-century English manufacturers of dinner services include: Spode, Flight, Barr and Barr, and Chamberlain's Worcester. "In the early nineteenth century the English made great dinner and dessert services," Wilkie says. "The porcelain was good quality, the design was good, and the color was brilliant."
As a rule auctions are too fast-paced and competitive for the prudent neophyte—especially the sales dedicated to porcelain, held twice a year in New York at Christie's and Sotheby's. At the "Meissen and other Continental Porcelain" sale at Christie's New York held in April last year, the cover lot, a Meissen figure of a marten made by J.J. Kändler ca. 1734-35, was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, even though it had been broken in half and restored. But since "it may be one of only three that were ever made," says Wilkie, "it sold for $57,500 because people thought, 'We're never going to have another opportunity to get one.'" At that same auction the highest selling lot was a platter dome, or "Wärmeglocke", from Meissen's famous Swan Service, made in 1738 for the wedding of the Meissen factory director, Count Brühl. It went for $101,500, despite having a replaced handle.
If you do try your hand at auction, good places to start include English and French furniture sales selling porcelain odd lots; the annual International Ceramics Fair & Seminar in London (44-171-734-5491); and the annual International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show held at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City (212-642-8572).
Whichever auction you choose, make sure to see and hold the wares and get a condition report before you buy and a detailed receipt of purchase afterwards. (Sotheby's offers full reimbursement for any purchase that has been determined to have been misrepresented or restored without disclosure in the catalog.)
Also, suggests John Sandon of Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers, ask the auction house specialist about the piece that you're considering: whether he thinks it's a good example of the piece's type; how rare it is; and whether you'll easily find a better example elsewhere. Or does he think it's worth paying a bit more for this one.
The best way to stock your porcelain collection is to find a good dealer who will learn what you like and look for pieces you would otherwise miss. The important thing is to choose one based on taste level and credentials. Membership in the National Antique & Art Dealers Association (NAADA), the Art and Antique Dealers League, or the British Antique Dealers' Association (BADA) is a good sign. Here are some top porcelain dealers we found.
Jill Fenichell New York, NY; 212-980-9346 • Michele Beiny, Inc. New York, NY; 212-794-9357 • James Robinson, Inc. New York, NY; 212-752-6166 • Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc. New York, NY; 212-308-2022 (by appointment only) • The Meissen Shop Palm Beach, Fl; 561-832-2504 • Adrian Sassoon London, England; 44-171-581-9888 (by appointment only); www.adriansassoon.com • Albert Amor Ltd. London, England; 44-171-930-2444 • Simon Spero London, England; 44-171-727-7413 • Brian Haughton Antiques London, England; 44-171-734-5491; www.haughton.com • Mercury Antiques London, England; 44-171-727-5106 • Dragesco-Cramoisan Paris, France; 33-1-42-61-18-20 • C. Bednarczyk Vienna, Austria; 43-1-512-4445
Christa Worthington, a first-time contributor to Departures, writes regularly for Elle Decor and The New York Times.