A guide to collecting Meissen porcelain
All you need to know about the origins of the Meissen factory in Germany, from the man who claimed he could create gold to the monarch who commissioned a porcelain menagerie, plus advice on what to collect and how to spot a fake
A Meissen group of Columbine and Scaramouche ‘Die Hahnreigruppe’, circa 1741-45. Sold for £92,500 on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
In the 18th century, porcelain — known at the time as ‘white gold’ — was one of the most highly prized commodities in the world. Trade in porcelain wares from the East was booming, but the question of how to imitate them was another matter.
Porcelain was developed in China around 2,000 years ago, but the method for making it remained a mystery to Europeans until the early 18th century, when Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the magic formula, and in 1710 the Meissen factory was established.
The factory went on to produce some of the finest wares and sculptures ever seen in the West, and remains one of the most sought-after names in European ceramics.
The man who claimed he could make gold
Johann Friedrich Böttger was an alchemist who bragged that he could make gold from base metal. For this, he was imprisoned by the ruler of Saxony, Augustus II the Strong, and told to prove it. Needless to say, Böttger didn’t actually produce any gold, but he did discover how to make hard-paste stoneware, and then ‘true’ porcelain.
A Meissen (Augustus Rex) porcelain royal armorial part tea and chocolate service, 1725. Sold for £262,500 on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London
The establishment of the Meissen factory
As a result of Böttger’s discovery, Augustus the Strong founded the Meissen factory, hiring a number of artists and craftsmen to produce decorative wares. It started manufacturing a wide variety of products, from dishes and bowls to vases.
The makers began experimenting with various glazes and forms, and recruited glass-cutters from Bohemia. Then, in the early 1720s, a man called Johann Gregorius Höroldt arrived from Vienna and set up the painting workshops. That’s when things really started to take off.
The role of a ‘porcelain-crazy’ ruler
The factory belonged to Augustus, who was porcelain-crazy and already had an enormous collection of Asian pieces. The first monarch in Europe to produce his own ‘true’ porcelain, Augustus ordered huge quantities for himself, as well as selling it to the grand families of the continent.
A Meissen (Augustus Rex) blue and white chinoiserie baluster vase and cover, circa 1725. Sold for £121,250 on 12 May 2010 at Christie’s in London
Diplomatic gifts were integral to European politics in the 18th century, and Augutus commissioned a significant number from the factory, including vases — many with an interlaced A and R mark on the underside for ‘Augustus Rex’ — and snuff boxes. Porcelain quickly became a symbol of his power and wealth.
A Meissen group of ‘The Mockery of Age’, circa 1740 (detail). Sold for £158,500 on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
How East met West
Initially, many Meissen designs copied Oriental forms or were inspired by them. In the 1720s, Meissen went through a phase of decorating these wares with fantasy chinoiserie scenes. Towards the end of the decade, Kakeimon designs from Japan were also introduced, along with forms inspired by Japanese originals.
A Meissen silver-gilt-mounted chinoiserie tankard and cover, circa 1725, the mounts 18th century. Sold for £206,500 on 25 November 2014 at Christie’s in London
Yet, although it was heavily influenced by Asia, Meissen was always doing its own thing. The factory’s craftsmen would often give Asian designs a kind of Baroque makeover, combining them with European forms — as well as sometimes producing faithful copies.
The origin of Meissen figures
The idea of making small figures in porcelain came from the sugar ornaments seen on fashionable dining tables all over Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. The sugar would be pressed into a mould to form figures, temples, gates, carriages, gardens and many other forms. These were very expensive and, of course, ephemeral, since they could be eaten.
A pair of Meissen gilt-bronze-mounted models of pug dogs, circa 1745, the mounts 19th century. 8⅜ in (21.2 cm) high. Sold for £50,000 on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
Producing these figures in porcelain made them more permanent, and more valuable. Many porcelain figures — from groups in pastoral scenes to depictions of street traders — were in fact designed as table decorations, and not made to sit in cabinets as they often do today.
The figures could be satirical, mythological or allegorical, and were designed to convey information about their owners — their level of scholarship, their military prowess, or even their sense of humour.
The Harlequin and the commedia dell’arte
One of the more common figures in Meissen porcelain was that of the Harlequin. He was a famous character in the hugely popular commedia dell’arte, a form of travelling theatre that began in Italy in the 16th century and influenced Shakespeare, Molière and many others. The Harlequin — like a fool or a clown in other plays — was always getting up to high jinks, which made him a favourite of craftsmen and collectors alike.
A Meissen group of Harlequin and Columbine, circa 1740. Sold for £146,500 on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
Augustus and his ‘porcelain menagerie’
As if the mass of products coming out of the Meissen factory in the early 18th century weren’t enough, Augustus had the extraordinary idea of creating a menagerie of enormous porcelain animals — from exotic birds to elephants and rhinoceroses. Created in life-size proportions, or thereabouts, these animals were made for the ruler’s famous Japanese Palace in Dresden.
Two Meissen porcelain models of jays, circa 1740, modelled by J.J. Kändler. Sold for $137,000 on 31 March 2016 at Christie’s in New York
Two principal modellers were involved in this huge undertaking: Johann Gottlieb Kirchner and Johann Joachim Kändler. The latter became Kirchner’s successor and a major figure in the history of Meissen. Kändler’s skill was to breathe life into the models and give them a sense of dynamic movement, and his work is still very much admired by collectors.
A Meissen white model of a great bustard, 1732, attributed to Johann Gottlieb Kirchner. Sold for £842,500 on 7 July 2016 at Christie’s in London
Today, most of the animals can be seen in the Zwinger collection in Dresden, but occasionally a Japanese Palace animal will surface on the market, and when this happens it causes a lot of excitement — as was the case with a large model of a bustard by Kirchner which sold for £842,500 in the Exceptional Sale of July 2016.
Which pieces realise the highest prices?
It is hard to predict what will sell well, but rare, beautiful groups that are in good condition and have not been seen on the market for a long time will usually achieve high prices — particularly if they are by Kändler. As always, provenance is important. One collection that did very well had been packed up in crates in the 1960s from the hôtel particulier of a grand Parisian family. Until it came to Christie’s in 2015, it had been left unopened.
A Meissen group of ‘The Hand Kiss’, circa 1737. Sold for £158,500 on 3 June 2015 at Christie’s in London
You might think that looking for the Meissen crossed-swords mark would be the starting point — but in fact a mark is only a very small part of the jigsaw, and a lot of pieces, particularly the early ones, are not marked at all.
The ‘feel’ of the porcelain itself is important — its weight and colour. If a piece purports to be early, the porcelain should be quite a smoky-coloured white. (By the end of the 1720s, this had changed to a brilliant white, because the factory had altered its porcelain formula.) On the edges of bases and foot-rims, the glaze tends to pull back in an irregular way, rather than in a perfect line.
For wares, the ‘visual grammar’ of the decoration should feel right — even if it is an unusual form that one hasn’t seen before. If very Baroque decorative elements are combined with Rococo or Neoclassical elements, the chances are that the piece is not genuine.
Meissen gilding should have a deep, honey-coloured richness to it. It should have a very particular glow that differs from that of some other factories of the time, such as KPM Berlin, where 18th-century gilding has a flatter, paler sheen to it.
A Meissen armorial oval monteith from the Swan service, circa 1740 (detail). 8 in (20.4 cm) high, 15 in (38.1 cm) wide. Sold for £151,875 on 4 June 2013 at Christie’s in London
For figures, the quality of the modelling should be appropriate to the period and to whoever modelled it. Very early examples are rather awkwardly modelled, whereas Kändler’s figures should have a fluidity and life about them, and should be nicely finished.
Eighteenth-century animal and bird models should (generally) have some nice incising. This is where a tool has been used to cut fine lines into the porcelain, enhancing the lifelike appearance of birds’ feathers or animals’ fur. These are just some of the things to look for.
How to recognise signs of restoration
Figures or groups will very often have been restored — particularly the vulnerable parts, such as fingers, or leaves on trees, or swords. These might have been repaired 20, 50 or 100 years ago, and over time the repaired parts can take on an unpleasant yellow colour.
What is less obvious is a more modern repair that uses a kind of spray lacquer, which is very difficult to see. One way of spotting this sort of restoration is that the restored area can sometimes have a very slightly different sheen to it.
Restored areas also feel slightly warmer than unrestored porcelain. The philtrum (the area between your lips and nose) is incredibly sensitive to temperature, so when you first pick up a figure — if it hasn’t been under a light which would heat it up — dab the part you think has been restored on your philtrum. If it has been restored, it will feel significantly warmer than unrestored parts of the piece.
Where to see great collections
Anyone interested in starting a collection of Meissen should visit the Zwinger collection in Dresden, which houses a large portion of what was once in Augustus the Strong’s Japanese Palace. There are other great collections around the world, including at the Met in New York, the Ernst Schneider collection at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, the V&A in London and the Wark collection at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida.
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Why new collectors can start small
The best collections are born of passion. Buy what you like, and read up on it: the more you can learn about a subject, the more you will find it takes you in a direction that you may not have initially envisaged. Often collectors start out in one direction, but as time goes on and their understanding and taste develops, they find themselves intrigued by different types of pieces. Sometimes they ‘prune’ earlier acquisitions and ‘trade up’; or they may keep their earlier acquisitions and add to them. Whatever they do, the collection becomes their story; a collection very much reflects its owner.
When a collection comes to auction, it is this personality and the quality of the collector’s choices that adds value. Pieces from great collections always make more than they would if they were sold without that provenance. In spite of this enhanced value, it’s very rare to come across a collector who thinks of his or her collection as an investment — the value becomes a secondary concern or, for many, not even a concern at all.
Importantly, it is always recommended to acquire the best-quality piece within one’s budget and to buy what you like. Some collectors have even been known to say that it is best to go for the piece that is just beyond one’s budget, and go hungry for a while! With Meissen, thankfully, it is possible to start small — good-quality early-18th-century pieces start at less than £1,000.