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German & Austrian porcelain: new collectors from Russia, South America and India are driving up prices for the best 18th-century works in this formerly rather staid market.

Changes in dining habits and the ever-increasing informality of social life mean that most people have long forgotten the original purpose of the porcelain figurines made at Meissen, Nymphenburg, Berlin and other factories in Germany and Austria. They were originally table ornaments, designed for the amusement of guests, who could be expected to understand their mythological and sometimes erotic allusions. It might be thought that, judged purely in visual terms, such highly colourful and decorative objects would be out of favour with collectors. That could well be the case were it not for new collectors from Russia, India and South America, on whom the specialised porcelain market increasingly depends.

An exception to this generalisation, however, is the very top of the market, where demand has never flagged, even in porcelains traditional European and American markets. This appetite for the best was emphasised once again in August at the Salzburg World Fine Art Fair (SWAF), where the Munich-based Meissen specialist Gerhard Robbig offered outstanding porcelain formerly in the collection of


Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, incised with the inventory number of the royal collections in Dresden. Even at this small fair--it has only 25 exhibitors, and no other porcelain specialist--there was great demand for these works. Among them were an octagonal Meissen bowl of around 1728 decorated in imitation of Japanese Kakiemon ware and an equally rare narrow-necked bottle after a Japanese Arita model, made at Meissen around 1728-30.

'As far as porcelain is concerned,' says the porcelain historian Alfred Ziffer of Munich, 'anything goes these days, apart from the 19th century.' He adds, 'Since Russian buyers discovered the figurines made around 1750-60, prices have gone through the roof.' A Russian collector recently paid 468,500 [pounds sterling] at Christie's, London, for a harlequin figurine modelled by J. J. Kandler, which the Munich dealer Angela Grafin von Wallwitz had sold at Maastricht in 2006 for 140,000 [euro] (Fig. 3). This left many dealers open-mouthed.

Even so, such prices for top-quality pieces by the famous manufacturers are still low when compared with contemporary art, for example. Ziffer says: 'In the present market, outstripped by contemporary art of uncertain durability, prices for increasingly rare items of porcelain are still very attractive to collectors.' For example, a pair of Meissen turtledoves made around 1733 was sold by Robbig at SWAF for 54,000 [pounds sterling] (Fig. 2)--remarkably little when it is considered that this model is one of Kiindler's most admired works, produced in small numbers for courtly clients for whom porcelain birds were immensely fashionable.

Augustus the Strong was one of the first to commission from Kandler realistic porcelain sculptures of birds of all kinds, for his Japanese palace. Elector Clemens Augustus of Cologne, too, a great lover of falconry, also bought porcelain birds, owning no fewer than 91 figurines by Kandler. In 2006 Robbig staged an exhibition in Munich of 115 porcelain sculptures of birds dating from 1706-1775, drawn from private collections from all over the world. They were the basis for a scholarly and glamorous catalogue, which has now appeared in English, Cabinet Pieces, The Meissen Porcelain Birds of Johann Joachim Kandler, published by Hirmer.


Such rare creations fetch very high prices on the infrequent occasions when they come onto the market. In December 2006, for example, Christie's, Paris, sold from the Wettin estate two near-life-size grey Meissen herons, of around 1732, which Augustus the Strong had ordered for his Japanese palace. They almost doubled the estimate of 2.5m [euro]-3m [euro] to fetch 5.6m [euro]. Four years previously, Christie's sold a 46-cm tall white sculpture of a fox holding a hen in its mouth, after a design by J. G. Kirchner and J. J. Kandler (Fig. 1). Dating from around 1732, it fetched 1.05m [euro].

These are exceptional objects, but there have been surprises also with the more usual porcelain objects made in series. At Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne in May 2008, an attractive group of figures by J.J. Kandler, Buying a Heart-Shaped Box, was bought by an American collector for 105,000 [euro] against an estimate of 30,000 [euro]-40,000 [euro]. A bowl with Kakiemon-style decoration from the collection of the Leipzig banker Johannes Lehmann, estimated at 3,000 [euro]-4,000 [euro], fetched 76,000 [euro].

Drawing on 30 years' experience, Angela Grafin von Wallwitz sees a decline in specialist knowledge on the part of both dealers and customers. 'What is the point', she asks, 'of an object being passed from one person to another, everyone earning a bit from it and it then perhaps ending up somewhere where it is totally out of place?' In October 2006 she decided to stop attending fairs, and from her office in Munich's Schwabing area this former head of Sotheby's porcelain department in London now advises collectors, publishes catalogues on her specialist field and sells porcelain in private to those who know how to appreciate it.


Early porcelain is a safe investment, says Von Wallwitz, but it is currently difficult to sell 19th-century Meissen, although 'for decades it was a thriving market', she recalls. (However, according to Alfred Ziffer interest in art-nouveau porcelain is increasing.) An early date and the quality of the object are the main factors driving high prices, to which a third factor, condition, needs to be added. Any element of restoration will drive the price down.

Some dealers, notably Robbig, seem to have a virtual monopoly of first-class objects. There are also amazing treasures in the depository of the Antique Porcelain Company, which was founded in London in 1946 and since 1987 has also had a base in New York. Discoveries can be made by collectors who extend their interest to the lesser-known factories. This is a field in which Daniela Kumpf in Wiesbaden has specialised for 35 years. Currently in her stock, for example, is an equestrian group made in Vienna in 1744-49 (Fig. 4), which was formerly in the collection of Rudolf Just--immortalised as Utz in Bruce Chatwin's 1988 novel of the same name.


Claudia Herstatt is a freelance writer and critic in Hamburg. She writes regularly for Die Zeit, Welt am Sonntag and Kunstforum.
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Title Annotation:COLLECTORS' FOCUS
Author:Herstatt, Claudia
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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