An Introduction To Meissen China

Meissen is Europe’s oldest china manufacturer and some of the early pieces, which would have been made for European Royalty, will sell for very large sums.  If you are interested in Meissen there are pieces for the collector with a more modest budget.

In the early 17th century fine porcelain was worth a great deal of money, since European manufacturers had not yet discovered how to make it.  The King of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, was very taken with it and built a Palace in the Japanese style to house his collection.  As the King had spent a lot of money on this he needed to replenish the coffers and he had heard of an alchemist called John Böttger, who claimed he could turn metal into gold.  Bad mistake, the King imprisoned him and asked him to do just that.  Böttger was a quick thinker and offered to make ‘white gold’, as fine white porcelain was called, instead.  By 1710 Böttger had managed to crack the formula and Augustus built a new factory at Meissen.  Three years later the first white hard-paste European made porcelain went on sale.

Initially they made teapots, cups and Buddha-like figures, copied from Chinese and Japanese china.  As the European porcelain was expensive to make the decoration had to be impressive.  A painter employed at Meissen, J G Hörold, invented chinoiserie decoration which was more exotic than its Chinese counterpart.  He also painted tea sets with garden flowers, birds and landscapes, more familiar to the European customer.

In the 1730 J J Kändler started making porcelain figures to decorate the banqueting tables of great houses and palaces.  He was a brilliant sculptor and was able to make life-like figures of Chinese gods as well as ladies in crinoline dresses.  On your dining table you would often have a group of porcelain cows and sheep as well as more exotic animals.

People often wonder why there is such a fuss about Meissen china – it is the manufacture and decoration that makes it stand out.  Clay is very difficult to work with and collectors really appreciate the skill of the maker and decorator.  What collectors often don’t appreciate is the conditions under which the porcelain was made.  Workmen were kept as virtual prisoners and were not permitted to stray outside the ancient castle walls which surrounded the factory.  They were paid very low wages and many workers just though of excape and they plotted to take valuable secrets with them.  Some managed to get out and helped to establish rival factories across Germany.  Meissen was captured by invading Prussians during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and they lost almost everything.

In the latter part of the 18th century Meissen had competition from French as well as English manufacturers, but they grew rapidly in the 19th century and became extremely popular in Britain.  An entire section of the factory concentrated on making porcelain in ‘the English taste’ and they couldn’t make it fast enough, they sold in their thousands.

Meissen introduced its crossed swords mark in 1723 to stop other manufacturers from selling their inferior porcelain as Meissen.  The mark was widely copied and even great factories like Minton, Derby and Coalport used the crossed swords on pieces they sold as ‘English Dresden’.  After long legal battles the crossed swords is now a protected trade mark.  However, there are many fakes and you should only buy from a reputable dealer or auctioneer.

As we entered the 20th century Meissen’s traditional style lost some of its appeal and during the art nouveau and art deco periods they started making modern patterns and figures.  They only made a small number of figures and they are rare and expensive.  Meissen is still hand-decorated, which pushes up the price.  If you are interested in collecting it you can occasionally pick up a nice flower-painted cup and saucer for between £200 and £300.  If you like the 19th century cabinet pieces, they can cost anyting from £500 to £3,000.  While 18th century blue and white china is rare, it is not expensive and you could get it for around £150.  You might also want to look out for the post war productions of white porcelain or red stoneware made in the 1950s and 1960s and they go for anything between £40 and £400.

Try to get your piece of Meissen china in perfect condition and always examine it for cracks.  This is less important with Meissen figures where damage or repair doesn’t lower the value by much, you should avoid pieces with broken necks or missing limbs.  As always, a piece in perfect condition will always be worth more.




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