Collectable Porcelain Figurines
The story of porcelain began in China around 100-200 BCE (hence the other name for porcelain, “china”). Porcelain figurines and the technology for making them reached Europe by the 17th century.
Early in the 18th century, August the Strong, Elector of Sachsen commissioned sculptors from Meissen (Germany), to make porcelain figurines for his palace. In the years that followed, production techniques rapidly improved; porcelain factories across Europe catered to the craze among the well-heeled for these expensive objets d’art. Porcelain factory towns like Dresden and Sèvres are famous even today. By the late 18th century, with thousands of factories engaged in the business, the middle classes could afford figurines as well; artistic standards however, had declined. Fake figurines, typically in Baroque and Rococo styles flooded the market, falsely marked with the names of old, prestigious manufacturers.
In the 20th century, mass production fuelled an explosive growth in figurines for home decor and as collectables. High quality figurines were valued for their artistic excellence. Notable English factories that produced thematic “families” of collectables were Doulton and Wedgwood, among others. Jugendstil, an art nouveau style originating in German-speaking areas of Europe hugely influenced porcelain figurines. Towards the mid-20th century, the porcelain industry seemed to run out of new ideas. Many factories shut shop due to rising costs and the time-consuming work involved. A new entrant from 1951 was Lladró of Spain; their uniquely glazed, hard porcelain figurines have become value-for-money collectables.
Why are figurines highly collectable?
Ironically, the very reasons for the decline in the industry have enhanced the value of good quality porcelain figurines. Few skilled craftsmen remain; many old porcelain factories have cut back production of high quality figurines or gone out of business. That adds value to old figurines, as collectors search for scarce, remaining pieces to add to their stock. Similarly, the value of a particular artist’s figurines goes up after his death.
Also, a figurine belonging to a theme becomes a valued collectable. For instance, a figurine wearing a gown from a particular historical period would be much sought after by collectors interested in that era, who would be willing to make a substantial offer.
Identifying markings, assessing value
Curious about the antecedents of your family’s porcelain knick-knacks? Look for identifying marks also known as signatures, logos and ceramic marks on the bottom of figurines. These may be painted, drawn, stamped or incised. An online recce could reveal the factory or decorator’s name or the place of manufacture. Books on manufacturer’s marks are another source of knowledge. Browse through antique shops for figurines bearing marks similar to your piece. If your figurine is really old, get it professionally appraised. It could well be a rare treasure!