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The immortal art of Sister Maria Innocentia.

If you should happen to be an American vet of World War II who spent less than a dollar for one of those cute figurines that had begun to find a market in Germany during the mid-1930s, what would you take for it today? If it was produced by the W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik company from a painting by Sister Maria Innocentia $2,500? If it is one o a kind, would you consider $20,000?

You ask, Where could one find a market at such prices? You evidently were not in Chicago last summer at what was billed as the "World's Fair of Hummels," where Hummels worth a total of $3 million were on display. Perhaps not all of the nearly 200,000 members of the M.I. Hummel Club were present, but so it seemed. Buyers could be identified by their "Happiness Is a Hummel" bags. "There were a number of club members who made incredible buys," says Joan N. Ostroff, executive director of the M.I. Hummel Club. "The mood was very upbeat. Because the collection goes back well over 50 years, collectors were finding Hummel pieces with markings from as early as 1935. The fair was so successful that another is planned for 1991."

Besides such fairs, collectors scour attics, flea markets, and auction sales to turn up figurines with the HUM" identification on the base. If the figurine happens to be one of the early ones, with a crown mark on the bottom, the value increases. The molds for the first Hummel, Puppy Love (HUM 1), were broken December 31, 1988-an event that will increase the figure's value. However, most collectors acquire the pieces for pleasure rather than profit.

"There's a very emotional reaction to the figurines," Ostroff says. "It's not unusual for someone to look at a figurine and say, Oh, this reminds me of when Johnny was three years old and he fell out of the apple tree.' Or, I had such a terrible toothache I couldn't stand it, and when I came home from the dentist my husband gave me this wonderful figurine called Boy with Toothache. I'll always remember his thoughtfulness that day."'

The attachment that collectors have to the figurines is evident in the essays submitted annually to the club's writing contest.

"People really dig down deep and talk about their most heartfelt emotions, and they're all tied in with the love for Sister Maria Innocentia and the incredible work that the Goebel artists have done," Ostroff says.

"It's a very religious thing [that collectors express] in a nonsectarian way," she says. "It's the religion of love, and people respond to that."

One can't help wondering what Bavarian girl who began drawing sketches of choirboys and birds and goose girls on wastepaper from her father's store would have thought of all this frenzy over her art.

Berta Hummel, born in the little rural town of Massing an der Rott, spent her childhood buzzing from one creative work to another. Because of this, her father nicknamed her "das Hummele," German for "little bumblebee." With the encouragement of her father, who himself had wanted to be an artist before being forced to take over the family business, Berta began her formal art education by enrolling in the prestigious Munich Academy of Applied Arts. There she refined her natural skills in drawing, painting, and composition. She received the highest possible marks. Although the academy faculty urged her to remain after graduation, the budding artist's personal convictions led her, in 1931, to enter the Franciscan Convent at Siessen in the Swabian Alps.

There, between fun-loving pranks usually directed toward outwitting her superiors-she developed a unique artistic style in still lifes, nature scenes, and illustrations. All her pranks were forgiven when she took her final vows and assumed the name Sister Maria Innocentia, and the convent sent her back to the Munich academy for another year of training.

Now Sister Maria Innocentia began to further develop her sketching technique with pen-and-pencil illustrations of fairy tale characters. Her summer vacations were spent sketching and painting mountain scenes in the Bavarian Alps.

Returning to the convent, she began religious illustrations as well as other motifs featuring children and offering religious sayings and reminders. "She applied all that she had learned toward a style that would capture the innocence, naivete, and purity of the young child," one of her professors commented.

These would be prolific years for the young nun. She fused religion and art and sketched seasonal holiday cards and young children in traditional folk costumes as well as religious subjects. A growing audience admired her images all over Europe and in the United States. In the United States particularly, after years of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Sister Maria Innocentia's children," much like Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers, appealed to the ordinary American on both the emotional and the spiritual levels.

During the Hitler years, Hummel artwork came under direct attack by the Nazis-"Heresy in Pictures," as one article labeled it. But repressive tactics failed to discourage Sister Maria Innocentia from continuing to create her unique artwork in her second floor studio at the Siessen Convent. By 1938, however, she had developed respiratory problems, which limited her drawing time.

Soon the Nazis turned the convent into a repatriation center for ethnic Germans from countries the Nazis had taken over. Food and living conditions at the convent became substandard, as did the heating of the convent buildings. Medicine was also in short supply, and artists' materials were hard to come by. To top it off, Hummel's work could no longer be sold in what was then known as "greater Germany." Nevertheless, she worked when her health permitted throughout the war years.

During the fall of 1944, shortly after her drawing of Slumber Time created a glimmer of hope at a time of grave uncertainty, Hummel developed what was diagnosed as pleurisy, but actually was tuberculosis. For the next two years, Sister Maria Innocentia only occasionally found strength to sketch her pictures, and on November 6, 1946, she died. She was 37.

And that's the en; of the story?

No, that's the beginning.

In the early 1930s, Franz Goebel, representing the fourth generation of the W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik company, had taken a trip to Munich looking for new ways to expand his business. On the counter of a small religious art shop he discovered the art cards of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel. Through a licensing agreement entered into late in 1934 between Goebel and the Convent of Siessen and Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel (still in effect today), Goebel decided to stake his company's future on converting the two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional figurines.

With his two top modelers, Arthur Moller and Reinhold Unger, Goebel began pouring all he had learned at the State School for Porcelain and Ceramics into the technical challenge of the new project.

Working late into the night, night after night, the modelers sculpted figurines in the likeness of Sister Maria Innocentia's drawings. After a few pieces were cast in porcelain, the modelers decided that earthenware was a better medium for the art. When finally a few pieces were ready-Puppy Love, Little Fiddler, Book Worm, Strolling Along, Flower Madonna and painters had painstakingly applied the specially mixed colors, the figurines were presented to the Siessen Convent for approval.

The pieces were approved not only there, but also in March 1935 at the Leipzig Trade Fair, the focal point for European and American retail and distribution firms seeking contact with German manufacturers.

The themes of Sister Maria Innocentia offered a refreshing change for the U.S. gift market. Mounting orders for the figurines rejuvenated the financially ailing Goebel company. Sales on the international market during the Christmas season were also brisk. The famous Chicago department store Marshall Field's reported an enthusiastic response to the Goebel product. The Siessen Convent gave Goebel permission to launch still more of the M.I. Hummel pieces.

The war years held good news as well as bad: bad news for Goebel, because production of the figurines had ground to a halt and master models had been lost or broken. As workers began trickling back from internment camps, the sculptors Moller and Unger had Sister Maria Innocentia's designs ready for them to work on. The company again took off-good news for collectors, who can still find interesting model variations among the pieces manufactured during this era. Known as the "U.S. Zone" pieces, these Hummels can be identified by the "made in U.S. Zone" mark, or a variation of it added from 1946 to 1948, stamped on the bottom of each figurine base.

The average price of an M.I. Hummel was about 65cts. (Ever the bargain hunters, GIs still preferred to barter with the shopkeepers.) Collecting the figurines provided a pastime not only for off-duty soldiers but for officers and their wives and for U.S. civilians as well. These collections were to go home with them; collectors as well as collections began to grow. By 1950 the Goebel factory was "Hum-ing" as never before.

How rare are those early Hummel pieces today? Production figures at that time were sketchy or nonexistent. It is also difficult to determine just how many specimens of any particular production run survive in their original condition. These variations and rarities have further stimulated the worldwide interest in collecting the M.I. Hummel figurines.

And is this the end of the story?

No. As the nearly 200,000 members of the M.I. Hummel Club and the $20,000 one-of-a-kind price testify, and with Goebel continuing to convert Sister Maria Innocentia's drawings into figurines and other works of art so loved throughout the world, this is only the beginning. A
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Title Annotation:Hummel figurines
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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