Monday, August 18, 2014

As Delicate as Lace

QUESTION: My aunt collected Dresden lace figurines for years. She died recently and left her collection to me. Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about these porcelain figurines, except that they came from Dresden, Germany. What can you tell me about them? Also, I’d like to maintain the collection and have no idea how to care for them. They seem so delicate.

ANSWER: Dresden lace figurines have captured the imagination of collectors for years because of their fragile beauty and grace. These delicate figures have been produced by many different German companies from the late 19th century to the present and shouldn’t be confused with the famous porcelain Meissen figurines.

Confusion about Meissen and Dresden porcelain has reigned for over 200 years. The Royal Saxon Porcelain Factory (now known as Meissen) first opened in 1710 in Dresden, Germany. A year later, it’s owners moved it to Meissen, Germany, where it remains today. During the 18th and 19th centuries Meissen porcelain became known as Dresden China in England, Canada and the United States. These lace Dresden figurines are completely different.

Between 1850 and 1914, as many as 200 decorating studios in and around Dresden created a "Dresden" style, a mixture of Meissen and Vienna. While some studios produced high quality pieces that outdid Meissen, others made inferior copies.

Most Dresden-style figurines aren’t as solid as those produced at Meissen. The makers of authentic Meissen figurines pressed porcelain clay into molds, making solid finished pieces. The makers of the  Dresden-style figures, on the other hand, made their pieces by pouring liquid porcelain or "slip" into plaster molds. Because the plaster absorbed the liquid near the sides, a thin wall of partially hard porcelain built up against the outline of the mold Then they poured the remaining slip out of the mold. The resulting impression was thin, hollow, and light in weight. Thus Dresden figures are less costly to produce than those of Meissen.

Meissen first introduced porcelain lace, the most distinctive feature of Dresden figurines, in 1770 as a fancy addition to the dress of some figures. Makers used small amounts to decorate collars and sleeves. In the late 19th century, various Dresden studios developed figurines in elaborately flounced lace skirts and dresses.

The lace was easy to produce. Workers dipped real lace into liquid porcelain, then cut and applied it to the figure in the desired position. During the firing process, the real lace threads burned away, leaving a replica of the mesh in the porcelain.

Dresden figurines also possess an abundance of delicate, applied flowers adorning the gowns, hair and base of the figures. Artists created these tiny leaves and flowers petal by petal, then individually applied them. Some pieces also had a hand-whipped, grouty bisque applied to the base to simulate grass or moss. The best examples appear on figures produced by the Carl Thieme Factory of Potschappel. In 1972 the company became the VEB Saxonian Porcelain Manufactory Dresden. Today, they’re the only official producer of Dresden china in Germany.

The most beautiful and sought-after Dresden pieces are the large figure groups made in the style of 18th-century Meissen. These so-called "crinoline" groups often portrayed court life and the diversions of noble people, such as playing musical instruments or doing the minuet. Avid collectors of Dresden figurines also seek groups that include animals such as Russian wolf hounds, as well as love scenes.

Many collectors love the Dresden ballerinas, each featuring tightly fitting lace tutus, as well as Spanish Flamingo dancers with their skirts of ruffled lace.

As with any antique or collectible, condition is probably the most important factor to consider. Examine the piece carefully for chips or small flakes, as damaged pieces lose 50 percent or more of their value. Because the lace is so fragile, you should expect a small amount of loss. However, be wary of pieces with large holes or breaks in the lace because it's virtually impossible to repair porcelain lace. If the piece contains many applied flowers, a small chip or two on a petal or leaf is acceptable.

The next thing to consider is quality. Do you like the face? Are the fingers slender and separated from one another? Is there much hand-painted decoration on the costume? Are the colors pleasing? How lifelike does the figure or group of figures appear?

You’ll need to take extra special care with your Dresden pieces. Because the lace and applied flowers are so fragile, use care in handling them. Keep them in a glass case or china closet to prevent them from getting dusty. If you must clean them, use a feather duster or carefully submerge them in a mild detergent and warm water. Gently pat dry the figure and blow dry the lace.

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