Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Porcelain of the Royals

QUESTION: I recently saw some Meissen porcelain at an antique show. I fell in love with it but the price seemed high. What can you tell me about this type of porcelain? I’d like to start collecting it, but I’m not sure I can afford it.

ANSWER: Meissen porcelain was the first porcelain made in Europe. It’s origins are royal. Augustus II, known as Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who reigned in the early 18th century, avidly collected porcelain from China and Japan, as did many of his fellow monarchs. By the time the Asian-made porcelain reached Europe, it was so expensive that only a king or queen could afford it.

For Augustus, it wasn't enough to fill his Dresden palaces with Oriental imports. He wanted his own porcelain, made in Saxony. After a great  many failed experiments and the expenditure of large sums of royal revenue, his court alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger, hit upon the correct formula and produced true porcelain at Meissen, a suburb of Dresden, in 1708. The early wares of the factory were imitations of the Chinese or Japanese styles.

Although Meissen produced a wide range of porcelain ware, both ornamental and practical, he company  is best known for its figures. From medieval times, German court dining tables had displayed decorative centerpieces composed of mythological, allegorical, or comic figures modeled in wax or spun sugar. Porcelain figures replaced these in the early 18th century. The earliest bore the mark “Hofkonditorei,” meaning royal confectionery. Because of their origins in entertainment, the subjects are usually cheerful and, when modeled in groups or two or more on a single base, often tell little stories.

Johann Joachim Kändler, who worked from 1731 until his death in 1775, was the great modeler at Meissen. In the hands of most modelers, porcelain figures were mere dolls. In the hands of Kändler, they became sculpture. Though collectors seek out all of Kändler's work, they especially admire his animals and birds, based on observations of the royal Saxon menagerie.

The commedia dell'arte inspired some of Kändler's finest work. His contemporaries immediately recognized the stock characters—the Doctor, Pantaloon, Scaramouche, Harlequin, Columbine— from these plays. Kändler dashingly modeled and brilliantly painted them with colors that have faded little in two centuries. These figures have never been inexpensive, and often sell for five figures or more.

Kändler's greatest achievement in tableware was the celebrated Swan Service, which he had his fellow workmen model in the grandest baroque style. It was made between 1737 and 1741 for Augustus's chief minister, Count Bruhl. Consisting of 2,200 pieces—plates, tureens, sauceboats, wine-bottle stands, and candlesticks, among other items—many in swan form and all painted with the Bruhl family coat of arms, the Swan Service has been called "the most beautiful and magnificent table service ever to be executed by a porcelain factory."

Having successfully produced his own porcelain, Augustus began to show signs of megalomania. He planned a "Japanese palace" paneled and furnished entirely in porcelain. He commissioned Kändler to do a life-size statue of him for the palace, but it cracked before it could be fired. A number of animal and bird figures from the project survived, and several examples have been sold.

The most expensive single piece of European porcelain ever sold was a 26½ -inch-tall macaw from the palace project, which brought $195,000 at a 1978 London auction. It came from the collection of German millionaire leather manufacturer Robert von Hirsch and was bought by the Kunstgewerbemuseum of Cologne.

Porcelain making is an art that has made little "progress" in 200 years. Eighteenth-century Meissen is considered by most collectors to be the finest porcelain ever made in Europe. And prices for it reflect that. The costliest lot of porcelain ever sold at auction was a 21-piece Meissen tea service ordered by King Christian VI of Denmark about 1730 and painted with the royal arms of Denmark and the insignia of the Danish Order of the Elephant. It brought $433,000 at a London auction in 1986. The royal connection was obviously a great asset, because a similar 27-piece tea and coffee service from the same period with no such provenance sold for a more typical $70,000. The demand for Meissen is consistent. At most sales and auctions, Meissen sells for prices way above the rest. So if you intend to collect it, you better win the lottery or start saving your dollars—not your pennies.

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