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Antique Trader

Beautiful Belleek: Masterwork from the Emerald Isle

ANTIQUE TRADER, July 2015 -- Belleek pottery has been produced in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, from a combination of local clays since the mid-1800s, the height of the Irish Potato Famine.

Belleek molded earthenware, which was made for durability rather than decorative appeal, was the chosen medium for pieces subjected to rough wear and tear like foot baths and ewers. Though these pieces are quite rare, they are rarely sought. They simply cannot compete with the artistic quality of Belleek porcelain. Many Belleek porcelains - delicate, translucent, silvery, lustrous and believed by some to be the thinnest, finest ever made - reflect their Irish origins. Some pieces bear popular motifs like green shamrocks, Irish harps or wild Irish roses. Some

feature realistic, molded nature-inspired patterns of roses, lotus flowers, limpets, sea urchins and thistles. Others feature desirable patterns named for nearby towns, like Rathmore and Finner, or for legendary designers like Cleary and Henshall.

Cornucopia Rock Spill Vase by Belleek

Cornucopia Rock Spill Vase by Belleek

"Because most porcelain Belleeks are modeled completely through the fingertips of their modelers," explains Ronan Flanagan, senior appraiser at Adam's Art Auctioneers & Valuers, based in Dublin, Ireland, "no two are exactly alike.The majority, however, "bear colored trademarks that correspond within their years of production. Mark-changes through the years reflect changes either in international import law or ownership of the company."

The earliest Belleeks, which generally bear black trademarks, are the most collectible. Commonly described as first (1863-1890), second (1891-1926) and third (1926-1946) black mark Belleeks, they sometimes command nearly double the price of similar, later pieces. Even when some marks have worn off or pieces have slipped through production unmarked, early ones can oft en be identified by specific patterns and designs.

Many hold special appeal for collectors.

Any first-period "grasses" pattern piece, for example, is extremely desirable, commanding between $450 to about $800 in today's market.The 1880s grass pattern tea pot, which is displayed at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, however, reveals Flanagan, is priceless.Though adorned with typical life-like garden-variety roots and foliage, its inner lid features printed directions aimed to

prevent damage through thermal shock of boiling water. "Fill

with water blood warm [water at blood temperature?]," it reads,

"and allow it to stand a few minutes empty and use with boiling


Early Belleek chinaware, which was produced to fulfill the widespread demand for exotic and oriental themes, rarely reach the open market these days. Pieces that feature dragon patterns, like hot water pots with dragonhead spouts and serving plates portraying writhing dragons, are very valuable. A Belleek tea kettle and stand in an elaborate dragon pattern, reveals Jamie M. Doerr, Research director and senior writer at M.S. Rau Antiques, based in New Orleans, recently sold via Leslie Hindman

Auctioneers for $11,875.

The most expensive early Belleeks, however, are crafted from biscuitor Parian finish. These unglazed pieces, which resemble Carrera marble, usually follow classical designs like busts, statues and portrayals of mythological figures. Highly sought novelty Belleeks are also very costly.

An alligator-shaped second period spill vase, a vessel that stored

tapers or sticks to light candles or lamps from a fireplace fire instead of using expensive, commercial matches, is one example.

Vintage basket weave Belleeks are also great favorites, So are

scallop-shell and Tridacna (clam shell) patterned plates, tea sets,

bowls and salt dips, especially those glazed with pink, cob-yellow

or sea-weed-green lustres as delicate and pearly as the shells that inspired them. Other popular Belleek products include dinnerware services, serving trays, cake plates, jugs, lamp bases, trinket boxes, night lights, sugar and creamer sets, gravy boats, ewers, heartshaped serving dishes and more.

This Belleek Nile vase was among the firm's most prized patterns

This Belleek Nile vase was among the firm's most prized patterns

Serious collectors, however, seek early world-famous Belleek

porcelain baskets, which were introduced in 1865. Much like braids

or lattice-like pie crusts, they are hand-plaited into strips, then woven into circular, oval, hexagonal, heart-shaped, trefoil, square or elongated forms. Many of these exceedingly delicate, egg-shell thin pieces, considered by some the most difficult porcelains of all to produce, also feature combinations of naturalistic, hand-formed, applied porcelain vines, roses, Scottish thistles, foliage or twig handles in luscious shades of spring-green, butterscotch, blue and pastel pink. Because few of their surfaces remain unadorned, these confections usually bear narrow identifying banners in lieu of black marks.

According to Doerr, a first period black three-strand Belleek basket

may currently bring $700 to $5,500 or more, depending on its

size, condition and complexity of design. Four-strand Belleek baskets,

which were created aft er 1921, may each bring $400 to $2,500.

In short, any early Belleek porcelain basket, if it survived free from

scratches, chips, cracks, flakes or repairs, is a true rarity.

As time passes, fine examples of early, black mark Belleeks are becoming

increasingly scarce on the market "” and increasingly expensive. Though it is very difficult to determine their price ranges in general, condition is the first aspect subjected to scrutiny, due to the fragile nature of their ceramic bodies.

"Because it took a great deal of talent and skill to work porcelain of

such delicate nature," Doerr explains, "finding any piece from the earliest

periods is quite extraordinary."

Later Belleeks, those bearing green, blue, brown, gold or black marks that

have varied in style according to market demands, are often valued solely

for their decorative worth.

Yet some of these, too, have become extremely rare and extremely collectible. Complete tea sets, for instance, even those created in the mid-20th century, tend to demand high prices. Those featuring extensive painted decoration and design complexity may currently go for $10,000 and more.

Still, adds Doerr, "Collecting Belleeks of any sort is a very personal endeavor. Choose pieces using your head and your heart first and then your pocketbook. You'll be happier in the long run and you will have a much finer collection that you can enjoy for years to come."


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