Secrecy. Deceit. Imprisonment. The stuff of spy thrillers and international intrigue. True. But they are also words that can be used to describe the early discovery and development of porcelain in Europe.
These beautiful and delicate icons that adorn our homes were once the objects of ferocious competition and the precious prizes coveted by kings. Today, avid collectors share the passion for porcelain and are no less voracious in their appetite for rare and beautiful examples.
Porcelain was introduced in China during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). By the 17th century, it had exerted its magnetic pull on the West, and Europeans were anxious to discover the secret potion responsible for its amazing beauty and strength. The Chinese, however, were reluctant to reveal the secrets of porcelain whose dear price and insatiable popularity in the West were making them wealthy.
Early in the 18th century, Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony, arrested alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger and imprisoned him in the town of Meissen; his mission, to discover the secret formula for hard paste porcelain. In 1708 Bottger unlocked the mystery and found the key to both porcelain and his freedom, and by 1718 factories began springing up across Europe fostering an atmosphere of ferocious competition.
By 1720, the Meissen factory was producing wares that eclipsed even the finest Chinese porcelain. They dominated the European market and influenced porcelain production around the world.
The Seven Year War in the late 1750s brought a halt to production at Meissen, and the mantle fell to the Royal Manufactory at Sévres, France, under the direction of King Louis VX. The third European factory to lead the market was that of Vienna, which in 1744 became the property of the Empire.
Collecting Continental Porcelain
All three factories were founded for the singular pleasure and whim of their monarch. Designs were based on the dictates of royal taste, and artisans and craftsmen who excelled in satisfying their kings were well rewarded. Thus, from these factories emerged some of the most spectacular and breathtaking pieces of art ever created.
Recognizing distinct characteristics of Meissen, Sévres and Vienna porcelain, along with a familiarity of maker's marks, is important when assembling a collection and necessary in avoiding fakes and reproductions.
Meissen porcelain is perhaps most noted for its allegorical figures and those of everyday people in period costume and is without a doubt the most decorative of the three factories. Often heavily adorned with floral decoration, Meissen pieces imbue a fresh spontaneity and fluidity of motion along with an incredible technical excellence. Figures, antique urns, candelabra, mirrors etc. reflect a playful elegance and charm that has made them popular for more than 200 years.
Authentic Meissen is marked with the traditional blue crossed swords which, despite minor variations over the years, has remained consistent. Learning these subtle variations, however, could prove invaluable not only in dating pieces but in recognizing fakes and distinguishing the mark from similar ones used by factories hoping to confuse the public.
In addition, do not confuse Meissen with Dresden porcelain. In the early days, Meissen porcelain was sent to Dresden, 12 miles away, where it could be sold and shipped. Thus, Meissen was mistaken for "Dresden porcelain."
Later, smaller Dresden factories producing copies of Meissen used this confusion to their advantage. Be aware that there is a distinction. Meissen porcelain is porcelain manufactured in Meissen and bears the traditional blue crossed sword mark.
Crippled by subterfuge at the hands of a Meissen employee, the Vienna factory flourished after it became a ward of the monarch in the third mid 18th century. Vienna porcelain is most noted for its exceptional paintings and decoration, and late 19th-century artists like Wagner brought Vienna wares to the forefront.
Portrait plates and vases with glorious ornamentation soon set the standard for hand painted decoration. The Vienna mark is the Austrian shield or "Beehive" imprinted in blue. Vienna porcelain has been widely copied and can be distinguished most readily by its superior decoration. Nineteenth-century Vienna portrait plates and vases are of particular interest to many collectors.
Sévres porcelain remains perhaps the most elitist, having gone from the direction of Louis VX to that of Napoleon Bonaparte. Heavily reliant on the whims of the court, Sévres pieces reflect rather dramatically the ever-changing tastes of the ruling classes. Magnificent vases, furnishings, massive table service and delicate tea sets were among the Sévres pieces heartily commissioned by royalty.
Following the French Revolution, Sévres took on a distinctly classical look reflecting the prevailing Empire style. Monumental vases lavishly decorated with splendid narrative scenes and embellished with extensive gilt and bronze mounts were among Sévres impressive repertoire.
Sévres color schemes range from bright yellows (juane Jonquillete) to cerulean blue (bleu celeste) to soft rose (rose Pompadour) to deep claret. The innovative use of bronze and bisque accents allowed the Sévres factory to produce an incredible array of spectacular and unique pieces, giving the collector numerous avenues of concentration.
The Sévres mark, the Royal cipher (interlaced L's) has been widely copied. The only true way to distinguish authentic Sévres from the many forgeries is to pay close attention to details. Sévres pieces should exhibit superior quality, workmanship and decoration.
Restoration and Value
Due to its extremely delicate nature, minor losses and restoration on Meissen pieces are expected and seldom affect the value of the piece. Total restoration of extensive damage, however, will affect value.
Sévres and Vienna pieces which are less susceptible to damage and wear, however, should be near perfect. Cracks, chips, or losses could affect the value on these pieces. How much damage or restoration is acceptable is up to the collector and can also be affected by the rarity of the piece. The rarer the item, the more tolerable a defect or loss becomes.
Complete sets, of course, are most desireable, as in the case of the famous Meissen Monkey Band or the extraordinary Four Elements ewers. Likewise, pairs of candelabra or vases are more desireable than singles, unless those singles are of exceptional size and rarity.