How to collect Meissen porcelain

All you need to know about the origins of the Meissen factory in Germany and the ‘porcelain-crazy’ ruler who founded it — plus advice on what to collect and how to spot a fake. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s

A Meissen group of Columbine and Scaramouche, circa 1741-45, sold for £92,500 on 3 June 2015 at Christie's in London

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 and 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.

The establishment of the Meissen factory

As a result of Böttger’s discovery, Augustus the Strong founded a porcelain factory in the town of Meissen in 1710, hiring a number of artists and craftsmen to produce a wide variety of decorative wares.

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 continent’s grand families.

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 its wares with fantasy chinoiserie scenes. Towards the end of the decade, Kakiemon designs from Japan were also introduced, along with forms inspired by Japanese originals.

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 (known as pièces montées) seen on fashionable dining tables all over Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. 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.

Producing similar 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 intended 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.

Augustus and his ‘porcelain menagerie’

As if the vast array 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 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.

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 at Christie’s in 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 at the hôtel particulier of a grand Parisian family. Until it came to Christie’s in 2015, it had been left unopened.

Authenticating pieces

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 — its weight in your hand — is important, as is its 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 Baroque decorative elements are combined with Rococo or Neoclassical designs, 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 K.P.M. Berlin, whose 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 unappealing 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.

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 is 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 your 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.

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Where to see great Meissen 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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