Take a piece of handmade china and hold it up to the sun. As soon as the light hits it, the china will start to gleam – the material is so thin that light passes through it, rendering a pale, golden glow. That's one reason they call it white gold.
This doesn't work with modern factory porcelain. The extreme delicacy of the material that makes it so transparent can only be achieved when the material is crafted by hand – in ways that don't differ significantly from mid-18th-century methods when sovereigns manufactured porcelain all over Europe.
A few such factories have survived: Herend, Zsolnay, Meissen , Sevres , Nymphenburg , Zsolnay, Augarten , KPM and Royal Copenhagen . They keep to the old traditions and secrets of creation, meaning pieces produced at these manufacturers are still completely made by hand.
You can probably guess the second reason for the name white gold: its tremendous price.
Monarch Pride – Porcelain Arrives in Europe
From the 13th century, European monarchs were spending fortunes on importing porcelain from China where the extremely delicate material was invented, probably around 200 AD. In the 17th century, sovereigns set their alchemists to discovering the secrets of the precious material. A century later, Johann Friedrich Böttger finally succeeded. He had been engaged by August the Strong, elector of Saxonia and king of Poland. In 1708, a substance was composed which – at least roughly – resembled Chinese porcelain. Techniques and mix ratios of the raw materials soon improved and, in 1710, Meissen, the first handwork factory of the continent, was founded.
Other rulers tried to acquire the secrets of Böttger, but it took until the middle of the 18th century before other manufacturers were able to produce similarly-refined porcelain figurines and tableware as Meissen's, which was by then renowned.
Although homemade porcelain was cheaper than importing China's, these efforts still devoured enormous sums of money and the finished pieces were so expensive that they were only affordable by the high nobility. Because of the quality of handiwork, prices – especially for painted pieces – are still sky-high today.
To understand the fascination with porcelain, it is worth while visiting a factory. KPM in Berlin, Meissen near Dresden, Augarten in Vienna and Sevres near Paris offer impressive museums and demonstration workshops. The best way of getting in touch with the secrets of fine porcelain, passed down from master to apprentice since the 18th century, is through a guided tour of the Nymphenburg factory in Munich. Its historic buildings are hidden
behind the roundel of Nymphenburg palace, where power for potters' wheels is still drawn from hydropower devices installed in the late 18th century.
Some factories, especially Sevres and Nymphenburg, continuing in the tradition of artistic invention, ask contemporary designers for limited edition pieces to appeal to prospective collectors of contemporary art.
Collecting Antique Porcelain
Although many porcelain classics – such as figurines by Kaendler (Meissen) or Bustelli (Nymphenburg) – are still manufactured today, most passionate porcelain collectors go for antique pieces.
“A collector always wants to have something absolutely unique,” explains Rodney Woolley, an expert on European porcelain at Christie's, London. “Although manufactures still produce some of the pieces anew that may appear at an auction, you can tell an antique figure at first glance. Techniques have changed, paints vary – in many cases, the extremely high quality of a historic piece can't be kept up by its pendant of today.”
There are two brands in particular that porcelain collectors crave for: Meissen, whose history was mentioned above, and Sevres, the royal French manufacture founded in Vincennes by Louis XV and Madame Pompadour in 1740. In 1756, it was moved to the town that up to today is synonymous with the famous porcelain. Two Meissen herons made for the Japanese Palace of August the Strong at Dresden in 1732 were sold by Christie's in 2005 for 5.6 million euros in Paris; a Vincennes cistern (a device for washing one's hands), made for Madame Pompadour, changed owners in New York in 2006 for 1.8 million US dollars.
How to Build up a Collection
Which brand of porcelain you start collecting depends on the amount you are willing to spend.
“You always have to consider that [Meissen and Sevres] of course are the most sought after – and that their pieces therefore will be very costly,” says Rodney Woolley. “One way to get started might be to go local – to look for a manufacturer that worked or still works near the place you live or come from, but you have to keep in mind that the more particular your field of interest is, the more difficult it may be to sell your collection one day. If you collect Meissen or Sevres, there will be sales prospects around the world. If you collect, for example, a local British manufacturer, there may be only a handful of interested people.”
Whatever you choose, Woolley advises to buy only the best quality. “If you are planning to spend 10,000 euros, it's better to invest it in one major piece than in ten pieces for 1,000 euros.”
So what about bargain buys? Of course, as in all fields of collecting, there are stories – the collector who bought a set of plates from a flea market dealer who didn't know what he was selling, which turned out to be late 18th-century Meissen…
“You should always be alert and think logically,” says Woolley. “It is quite improbable that a piece which is 200 or 250 years old doesn't have the slightest damage. But if there had been breaks which were mended, it is very important when and where the piece had been restored. Up to recent times, for example, plastic glues were used to mend breaks; in that instance, by naked eye, you won't discover the slightest harm. But with the years, the colour painted above the break will fade.”
Thus, for beginners, a renowned dealer or auction house should be the first choices when considering where to buy. There, every piece comes with a condition report which lists origin, history, restorations and the actual state. Usually, all facts given in condition reports are guaranteed. Therefore, if the dealer or auction house turns out to have made a mistake, you can get your money back.
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