Treasures: Ornaments? Go figure...
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
In the high-brow world of decorative arts, a passion for porcelain figurines is the love that dare not speak its name. In Miller's Collecting Porcelain (2002), the ceramics expert John Sandon pompously describes his penchant for ornaments as "rather like a great classical musician confessing to enjoying lift music".
The little figures, first made in 18th-century Germany, have been copied so often and so badly that the whole genre has become debased.
It's only when you see the real thing that you realise what all the fuss was about. The earliest - and possibly the loveliest - porcelain figurines were made in Meissen in the 18th century. Designed as dinner table centrepieces for interminable German banquets, they are inarguably and exquisitely beautiful. They are also worth a great deal of money.
There's a particularly saucy Meissen group coming up for auction in Adam's sale of the Alton Collection on September 6 (est €25,000 to €35,000). It was made in 1742 and shows a group of figures based on the Italian comic theatre known as Commedia dell'arte. In 18th century Italy, travelling troupes of actors took on stock roles, in the manner of a pantomime, to play out universal themes. The most famous of the characters are Pierrot, the sad-eyed clown, and Harlequin, the jester.
Over the centuries, many, many Harlequins and Pierrots have been reproduced in porcelain and the vast majority are maudlin, kitsch and not worth the postage on eBay. They are at least partly responsible for the lowly status of porcelain figurines. But there is a world of difference between such tawdry sentimental tat and the original works of art.
The vignette currently on view at Adam's, the Meissen Group of the Indiscrete Harlequin, consists of three seated figures. The unscrupulous Beltrame is in the process of seducing Columbine, his arm around her waist and his fingers reaching for her breast. Columbine looks well up for it. On the floor at her feet, the leery and lavicious Harlequin is peering up her skirt. With thick red lips, black facial patches and a bad haircut, it's hard to imagine Harlequin looking any sleazier, but apparently there's an earlier (1740) model of the same group with the joker's tongue sticking all the way out. This - believe it or not - is the prim and proper version.
The group was modelled by JJ Kändler, chief modeller at Meissen in the 1730s and 1740s, and responsible for some of the finest groups and individual figures made there. As well as the Commedia dell'arte series, Kändler made birds and animals, street vendors and romantic couples, known as 'crinoline groups', and even a 21 piece monkey band.
The animals are lively, lifelike and apparently based on the inmates of Dresden zoo. Although modelled by Kändler, the pieces were painted by different people and no two are exactly alike. All the originals are valuable. In May 2013, a large collection of 18th century Meissen animals modelled by Kändler sold at Sotheby's in London, with the higher prices including €201,940 for a pair of bitterns (c.1750) and €159,302 for a pair of ring-rose parrots (c.1741). One of the parrots is enjoying a sugar lump and the other has a sprig of cherries in its beak. More modestly, an apologetic looking Danish hound sold for €2,961 and a number of individual partridges for €4,145 each.
It's most unlikely that a high-value Meissen commedia dell'arte group is lurking unappreciated on an Irish mantelpiece. But it's not impossible that a few of Kändler's smaller animals might have gone unnoticed. If you inherit a box of ornaments, it's always worth checking.
"Look for quality first - both in the modelling and the paintwork," says Ronan Flanagan of Adam's. "Meissen pieces are marked, typically with crossed swords, but that's the least reliable way of checking. Meissen was extensively copied by other factories and the mark was repeated too."
He points to a pair of porcelain saints (inset) - Saint Simon and Saint Indasthad - made in Meissen in the mid-18th century (est €2,000 to €3,000). Apart from their hilariously-camp costumes - they both look like they're wearing wallpaper - they're not nearly as engaging as the Indiscreet Harlequin. "Those are the sort of pieces that might be overlooked," he says.
Eighteenth century Meissen pieces are liable to have firing flaws - tiny cracks - which remind us that the art of working in porcelain was in its infancy. They're also heavy, solid yokes.
Finally, the colour of the gilding changed over time. Flanagan points to the brightly gilded buttons of one of an 18th century pair of Meissen falconers (est €3,000 to €4,000). The strong metallic gold was created using a mercury-based process that, by the late 18th century, had been replaced with something less toxic.
Later Meissen pieces also have value.
At Mealy's Lotabeg sale earlier this summer, three late 19th century porcelain ewers representing the elements of earth, fire, and water sold for €22,000, €21,000, and €9,000 respectively. All three were profusely encrusted with classical figures, flowers and dramatic vistas. But, despite being wildly unfashionable and over-the-top, the sheer quality of the work is obvious. Even if ornaments aren't your sort of thing.
See adams.ie, mealys.ie, and sothebys.com.
In the salerooms
RJ KEIGHERY ANTIQUES
Waterford Crystal led the way at RJ Keighery Antiques auction, which took place on August 22 at City Auction Rooms in Waterford. The two top lots, both large Waterford Crystal "Etoile" chandeliers, each sold for €6,800. Two five-branch Waterford chandeliers sold for €1,200 each. Not far behind, an 18ct white diamond brooch fetched €6,000. Amid items of silver, an Irish silver three-piece tea set made €600, as did an oval Tiffany silver tray. A 60-piece Limoges Bernardaud Boston Pattern dinner service sold for €580. A signed Persian silk prayer rug fetched €580. See cityauctionrooms.com.
LEV MITCHELL & SONS
Lev Mitchell & Sons Auctioneer & Valuer of Slane, Co Meath, will hold an antique furniture auction on September 5 in Milltown Country Auction Rooms, Milltown, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Co Louth at 5pm. The sale will include the complete contents of a period residence in Newbridge, Co Kildare, along with a collection of period jewellery from the same house. Jewellery in the sale ranges from an 18ct gold ruby and diamond set bracelet (€5,000 to €7,000) to an 18ct gold diamond five stone gypsy ring (€500 to €600). Antique furniture in the sale includes an 1886 carved oak cupboard (€1,500 to €1,800); a Georgian mahogany inlaid bureau (€500 to €600); and an 18th century oak mule chest (€400 to €500). Contact: 087 2513190.
The Eclectic Collector Auction at Whyte's, which takes place on September 17, includes a copper and brass helmet diving helmet (€3,000 to €5,000). It was used with a diving suit by Joe Murphy, master shipwright for Dublin Port, for underwater repairs and maintenance in the 1960s. The helmet was presented to him as a retirement gift. Another item of Irish interest, a 15-inch wall clock (above) with 'General Post Office, Dublin' marked on the white enamel dial (€2,000 to €3,000) was made in 1910. It probably hung on an office wall in the GPO building during the 1916 Rising. The sale also includes part of the collection of a NASA scientist who accumulated a number of objects, and samples relating to space exploration. See whytes.ie.
The clearance auction of the Nore View Folk Museum in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, takes place at Victor Mitchell Auctioneers' Mount Butler Salesrooms, Roscrea, September 7 at 10.30am. The collection was amassed by the late Seamus Lawlor and contains many everyday items used by Irish people, between the 1840s and the 1950s. Lots range from furniture such as a 19 century settle bed and table, to household appliances and trade tools. Items include railway station signage and lamps, as well as a set of English/Irish road signs from the 1920s and many items associated with the GAA. See victormitchell.com and thesaleroom.com.