European Ceramics specialist Dominic Simpson on the origins of the Meissen factory, 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
In the 18th century, porcelain — also 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 ‘alchemist’ who bragged that he could make gold
Johann Friedrich Böttger was an alchemist who bragged that he could make gold. For this, he was imprisoned by the ruler of Saxony, Augustus II the Strong, and told to prove it. Needless to say he didn’t actually make 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 established the Meissen factory and hired a number of artists and craftsmen to produce decorative wares. It started producing a wide variety of different 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. Augustus was the first monarch in Europe to produce his own ‘true’ porcelain and he started ordering huge quantities of it for himself, as well as selling it to the grand families of the continent.
Diplomatic gifts were integral to European politics in the 18th century, and Augutus commissioned a significant number of gifts from the factory, such as 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.
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 1720s Kakeimon designs from Japan were also introduced, along with forms inspired by Japanese originals.
We have a very early coffee-pot in the European Furniture and Works of Art sale on 4 July, which dates from Meissen’s ‘Böttger’ period. This is made from red stoneware but is covered with an experimental black glaze to simulate Japanese lacquer. Even though it was heavily influenced by Asia, however, Meissen was always doing its own thing. Meissen would often give Asian designs a kind of Baroque makeover, combining them with baroque European forms — as well as sometimes producing faithful copies of the Asian originals.
The origin of Meissen figures
The idea for 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.
The arrival of porcelain made these figures more permanent, and more valuable. Many porcelain figures — from those in pastoral scenes to depictions of street traders — were in fact designed as table decorations, and not made to sit in cabinets as they 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 beloved among craftsmen and collectors alike.
Augustus and his ‘porcelain menagerie’
If the mass of products coming out of the Meissen factory in the early 18th century wasn’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.
This was a huge undertaking and two principal modellers were involved — Johann Jakob Kirchner and Johann Joachim Kändler, who became Kirchner’s successor and a major figure in the history of Meissen. Kändler’s skill was to breathe life into the models, to give them a sense of dynamic movement, and his work is still very much admired today.
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 reached £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 — particularly if they are by Kändler — that are in good condition and have not been seen on the market for a long time will usually reach high prices. 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.
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 pieces, are not marked. The ‘feel’ of the porcelain itself is important — its weight and colour. If the piece purports to be an early one then the porcelain should be quite a smokey-coloured white. By the end of the 1720s this had changed to a brilliant white, because the factory had changed its porcelain formula.
On the edges of bases and footrims 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 of decoration that one hasn’t seen before. If very baroque decorative elements are combined with rococo or neoclassical elements, then the chances are that the piece is probably not genuine. Gilding should have a deep honey-coloured richness to it. It should have a very particular glow that differs from some other factories of the time, such as KPM Berlin, where 18th-century gilding has a flatter, paler, bright sheen to it.
For figures, the quality of the modelling should be appropriate for the period and for whoever modelled it. Very early figures 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 the fur of animals’ coats. These are just some of the things to look for.
How to recognise signs of restoration
Very often figures or groups 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 (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.
Why new collectors can start small
The best collections are born from 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. So 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’, other times they keep most of their earlier acquisitions and add to them. Whatever they do, the collection becomes their story, and a collection very much reflects its owner.
When a collection comes for sale, it is this personality and the quality of the collector’s choices which adds value. Pieces which come 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 best to acquire the best quality piece within one’s budget and buy what you like. I have even heard some collectors 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 the upper hundreds mark.