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Meissen Porcelain

Meissen vaseSecrecy. 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.

The name Meissen is synonymous with handcrafted porcelain of exceptional quality. This porcelain, known as “white gold” in Germany, has captivated people for centuries. Today Meissen Porcelain Manufactory is famous around the world for its luxury tableware, limited art works and craftsmanship of the highest quality. Besides its popular tableware, the company produces limited art editions, interior design concepts, ornaments, jewellery and products to create your own individual world for living. Traditional as well as modern, partly contemporary, aesthetics find new expression in Meissen Porcelain.

The first european porcelain manufactory was founded in 1710. Its principal assets took the form of formulae and techniques for the manufacture of porcelain, which were meant to be kept utterly secret. Only very few employees were familiar with even part of this manufacturing secret, generally known as the arcanum. But secrets tend to get betrayed: in 1718, the Meissen arcanist Samuel Stöltzel attempted to use his knowledge to set up a rival to Meissen in Vienna. This attempted faking exercise rendered a system of “marking” necessary: this was the only way of proving the authenticity of a given piece of Meissen Porcelain. Several means of identifying porcelain were devised in the years immediately following the Manufactory’s foundation. It wasn’t until underglaze cobalt blue was perfected at Meissen in 1720, however, that a forgery-proof system of marking was found. It was then a question of deciding on the symbol or sign to be adopted.

The most familiar mark from this period is the monogram of the then Elector Prince of Saxony and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, used from about 1720. On 8 November 1722, Johann Melchior Steinbru?ck, first Inspector at the Manufactory, proposed using a motif from the Electoral Saxon coat-of-arms. The ensuing adoption of the “crossed swords” gave rise to a mark whose history and familiarity throughout the world have remained without parallel ever since. 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. Sequences of letters continued to be used as alternatives to the “crossed swords” up to about 1730, examples being: K.P.M. = Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur M.P.M. = Meissener Porzellan-Manufaktur K.P.F. = Königliche Porzellan-Fabrik.

Today nearly every object ever created is still in production—175,000 in all, each finished off with a flourish of blue brush strokes: the company’s famous trademark, crossed swords lifted from the Saxon Elector’s coat of arms.

The earliest designs are imitations of the Chinese and Japanese pieces that flooded into Europe in the 17th century, firing the passions of royals, who began creating entire Porcelain Rooms in their palaces to showcase their collections. (It was their mad race to discover the secret formula for the costly Asian ware that ultimately led to the founding of Meissen by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, after the poor alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger—imprisoned by Augustus and failing to make gold as ordered— turned his efforts instead to making “white gold,” with happier results.) Later came Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Neoclassical, Biedermeier, Impressionist, Art Deco and Nouveau . . . you name an art style, and there’ll likely be a piece or ten of Meissen made in it.

Across these styles are hundreds of porcelain animals, from little pug knickknacks to a life-size fox. Characters from mythology, history, and the Ballets Russes. A Parisian selling mussels, a Chinese woman riding an elephant, and lots of German children gardening. And not just figurines, dishes, and vases, but snuffboxes, pens, scent bottles; handles for flatware, canes, and pipes; amazing chess sets (Max Esser’s 1923 Sea Beasts, Strang’s 1986 Heaven and Hell); even a chandelier as tall and big around as any respectable Christmas tree.

As for the dinner services, there are over 300 to choose from. Blue Onion is simple elegance, an Oriental-motif, cobalt-on-white pattern that brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous quip “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” Created in 1739, it was Meissen’s first success in duplicating the Asian technique of the coveted blue underglaze (painting on absorbent porcelain rather than on top of glaze). Still Meissen’s most popular service, Blue Onion has more than 750 pieces, including an egg timer, a rolling pin, multitiered fruit stands, and a dozen different candelabra.

But this is far from Meissen’s most profligate set. That honor goes to the Rococo 1737 Swan service, with swans gliding across waves, herons, dolphins, reeds, and other water motifs. Comprising more than 2,000 pieces, it includes vast centerpieces, goblets designed specifically to hold oranges (a great delicacy then), and an extraordinary tureen (still in production) with dolphins as feet, mermaids as handles, and a lid topped by sea nymphs ($14,681).

For another kind of extravagance, there’s 1,001 Nights, a highly decorated and gilded service so expensive ($4,464 a place setting) that it’s hard to imagine anyone daring to actually eat from it. Designed in 1969 by Professor Heinz Werner, the service is more a collection of miniature art works, each piece illustrating one of 224 scenes from the book.

Meissen2Most die-hard collectors, of course, prefer originals, especially those from the factory’s first four decades—generally considered the high point of Meissen’s creativity—and its two most important artists: figure modeler Johann Joachim Kaendler (at Meissen from 1731 to 1775) and painting master Johann Gregorius Höroldt (1720-65). And there are a lot of serious hoarders out there. One was the inspiration for the title character in Bruce Chatwin’s 1988 novel Utz, set in Cold War Czechoslovakia.

Restoration & 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 desirable, as in the case of the famous Meissen Monkey Band or the extraordinary Four Elements ewers. Likewise, pairs of candelabra or vases are more desirable than singles, unless those singles are of exceptional size and rarity.

 

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