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Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Bisque Figurines

by Mike Wilcox (09/04/12).

This late-19th-century large German porcelain figurine depicting a couple dancing, standing 10 ¾ inches tall, sold for $255 in 2011.

The next subject of this series of Unloved Antiques are turn-of-the-19th-century bisque figurines. Bisque porcelain is a white, unglazed ceramic that, when fired in a kiln, becomes is hard and translucent, a perfect medium for making figurines and doll heads. Bisque figurines of this type are generally French or German in origin and unmarked. Most, like the pair in the photo to the right, is the work of smaller decorating studios.

These figurines were often purchased as undecorated bisque blanks by the studios and decorated by their staff or by students taking porcelain decorating classes. While these figures appear to be hand-made, they are actually made from a mold and could be easily mass produced. The clay used to make bisque porcelain is made from a mixture of kaolin, feldspar and flint, mixed to the consistency of a thin, runny mud called “slip,” which can be poured into a plaster mold and allowed to harden. Once the slip has hardened enough the mold is removed, the cast mold lines removed and the piece was ready to fire in a kiln when dry.

To understand why these bisque figurines are considered more valuable, older or rarer than they really are requires a little history lesson on European porcelain first. The production of porcelain is said to have been discovered by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty period (206-220 B.C.) , but remained a mystery to the rest of the world until the early 18th century, with many European potteries scrambling to uncover the formula. One of those most driven to discover the secret of porcelain in Europe was the Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I (1670-1733). Augustus had a great fondness for Chinese porcelain and employed a German mathematician and physicist named Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) and alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) to come up with a recipe that would work better than past failures.

Of the two, Böttger is the more interesting, as he had made claims previously that he could convert dross into gold. Augustus put him under house arrest to “hasten his research.” With no progress in that department, he was assigned to work with Tschirnhaus on porcelain in 1705. By 1708, they did have a working formula, but Tschirnhaus died before they could report to Augustus that they had indeed perfected the formula. To take advantage of this breakthrough, the now-famous Meissen factory was established in 1710 and by the 1730s, it was producing figurines. By the 1750s, the equally famous French Sèvres porcelain works was also making its own versions. With two highly competent and industrious porcelain factories turning out wares by the mid-18th century, it brings us to the perception that these later turn-of-the-19th-century bisque examples are older and more valuable than they really are.

This lot of three 19th-century German bisque figurines, all in mint condition with no chips or cracks, sold for $19.99 in 2007.

There two main reasons, really. The first is that many of the original 18th-century figures by Meissen, Sèvres and many other porcelain producers are often featured on both the American and British versions of “Antique Roadshow,” extolling their vintage and high value. As the late 19th-century examples are often based on the 18th-century originals or even resemble them in style, the general public sees them as one and the same. The second reason is that many of these 19th-century versions—as mentioned above—are unmarked or have simple markings comparable to those often used on 18th-century porcelain. This further fuels the idea they are far older and more valuable than they really are.

In reality, the later 19th-century bisque examples often have very modest values. The pair pictured above, and those comparable to them—when recognized for what they are—often sell at auction for less than $200.


Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting
Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible
Unloved Antiques: That Stack of Old Books
Unloved Antiques: 20th Century Wedgwood Jasperware
Unloved Antiques: Bone China Tea Cup & Saucer Collection
Unloved Antiques: Brass & Copper Fire Extinguishers

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.


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