The Life and Death of the Art Porcelain Market

As evidenced by the growing number of ‘lost’ porcelain studios I have been profiling here, and the number of inquiries I receive asking about the current market value of their porcelain(s), it is useful to take a look at the story of the industry (and its market) overall.

‘Art porcelain’ is the term often used to refer to what some also call “porcelain sculptures.” The term “porcelain figurine” is sometimes used, but it’s too broad because it encompasses items such as the Hummel child figures which are not regarded as ‘art porcelain.’

Art Porcelain Infancy (England) – 1930s and 40s

The modern-day art-porcelain concept originated in England during the 1930s at the Royal Worcester studio/factory, with the Dorothy Doughty-designed series of birds (the full story, and an overview, can be seen here.) They had been producing dinnerware, vases, and other décor items since the 1800s but the concept of producing an individually-numbered, limited-production edition of hand-painted porcelain studies, in a deliberate attempt to create an active “collector” market, did not occur until the Doughty era.

The first limited-edition Royal Worcester figures were of King George V and Queen Mary, in honor of their Silver Jubilee in 1935. They are less than 10” high and are dated and individually numbered. This issue was followed by the Dorothy Doughty birds-and-flowers series starting in 1936, and the horse and equestrian studies by Doris Lindner in the mid-1940s.

The Royal Worcester factory of the 1930s and 1940s was the incubator for many artists who would go on to become household names in the art porcelain world in subsequent decades. Some would eventually establish their own studios, but Royal Worcester retained its stature as the “grand dame” of the art porcelain genre as we know it.

However, they were not the first factory to make limited-edition figures as we conceive of them. Royal Doulton was producing named and individually-numbered figurines in the early 1900s such as their iconic little boy known as Darling (supposedly because Queen Mary saw one in production during a visit to the Doulton factory and exclaimed “Isn’t he a darling!”)

This shows one of the original examples. The backstamp includes the name of the designer, Charles Vyse, as well as other information pertinent to the sculpture’s production. The individual sculpture number (349 here) and the colorway-code (HN1 here, indicating a pale blue nightgown; different colorways had their own HN code) were placed on the interior of the sculpture mold rather than on the underside itself. Darling is 19 cm (about 7.5”) tall. Two smaller commemorative versions were issued in 1945 and 1993, with different marks of course.

Royal Doulton released more than 1000 named and numbered figurines between 1910 and the early 1930s. All have a highly glazed finish. Like Darling, many were subsequently produced in smaller sizes and different colors. Royal Doulton figures were not considered to be “art porcelain” when that term came into general use in later decades. The 1930s-and-later Royal Worcester figures, however, are.

The familiar Hummel child figurines first appeared in Germany in 1935, had limited production during the war years, and then came back in quantity in the late 1940s. Production was similar to Royal Doulton’s in that many figures were made in multiple sizes and repeatedly over multiple decades; hundreds of thousands were produced and sold. Hummels are not regarded as “art porcelain.”

The European and American Upstarts – 1950s

During the 1950s some studios picked up on the Royal Worcester concept of porcelain figurines as pieces of art produced in specified limited quantities. In Spain, the brothers Juan, Jose, and Vincente Lladro, who had been producing tableware since the early 1950s, decided to branch out into figural pieces.

Most of their early figures resembled the familiar French, German, and other European wares of prior decades.

The subsequent pieces, for which they became well known, have a distinctive style and a particular combination of muted colors with very high glaze that is easy to recognize. It was not until the 1960s that Lladro began to make any serious inroads into the nascent collector market. They even launched a lower-priced line, called Nao, in order to appeal to a wider customer base. Opinions are divided as to whether traditional Lladro pieces should be considered ‘art porcelain’ in the same sense as Royal Worcester, Boehm, Cybis, and others. A wide-ranging collector friend of mine once ranked Lladro as “a step above Hummel, a half-step below Royal Doulton, and a football field away from Royal Worcester.”

The two art-porcelain upstarts in the United States were Boehm and Cybis, both located in Trenton, New Jersey. They had a rivalry that was the porcelain-industry equivalent of Yankees vs. Red Sox baseball, Army vs Navy football, or NY Rangers vs. NY Islanders hockey. Both laid claim to being “America’s oldest porcelain art studio” although with varying degrees of credibility. My series on Lost Porcelain Studios will begin examining the New Jersey Boehm studio later this year; there is already a series of posts about their satellite studio in England, Boehm of Malvern. I have a separate website, The Cybis Archive, which examines all aspects of that studio’s history and operation.

If art porcelain is defined as ‘high-quality porcelain figurines intended for the upper-income mainstream retail market’, the Boehm studio was first in the USA to fit that description. The Edward Marshall Boehm Studio was founded in 1950 and the majority of the pieces produced in that decade were designed either by Edward Boehm himself or by an artist working inside his studio. They only rarely utilized molds that they purchased wholesale elsewhere. The 1950s Boehm pieces could be either glazed or bisque (unglazed) porcelain. It’s unclear exactly when Boehm introduced the concept of limited editions; some sources claim edition sizes for some of the early 1950s horses, but a 1953 Boehm price list makes no mention of limited editions at all. They were definitely into the limited-edition format by the 1960s, however. All types of Boehm pieces are considered to be ‘art porcelain.’

Although Boleslaw Cybis established his first studio in the USA in 1940, it did not begin to produce retail-based items under the Cybis name until the early 1950s. Unlike Boehm, 99% of the 1950s Cybis pieces were cast from commercially-purchased molds that were sold by their manufacturers to all and sundry. The Cybis pieces often received decorative additions such as handmade flowers, foliage, and dipped lace. The first limited-edition Cybis piece did not appear until 1956 (an edition of 10 Holy Child of Prague) and then none further until 1960. Nevertheless, Cybis is also considered to be ‘art porcelain’ despite the 1950s pieces not being original designs nor limited editions. The Boehm studio got the jump on them in regard to that marketing technique, but Cybis was quick to play catch-up!

Prices of Boehm and Cybis porcelains during the 1950s ranged from $5 to $100 depending on the given piece. A 1953 Boehm price list shows the highest price single item (one of their horses) as $250, with the most expensive overall being a pair of mallard ducks for $360. Unfortunately, I have found no 1950s Cybis price lists at all.

The Collector Phase Begins – 1960s

The 1960s was when people first began to think of quantity-limited porcelain figures as being “art” rather than “knick-knacks”, and art is often perceived as something that is likely to increase in value over time. The earliest Cybis price list that I have is from Spring 1963 and is titled Cybis Porcelain Art. It contains 12 limited editions, including one (Fox Sparrows) noted as “expired”…indicating that its specified quantity had already been completed and production halted. The limited-edition prices range from $100 to a whopping $3000 for the elaborate Holy Child of Prague. (To put that in context, you could buy a brand new 1963 Ford Fairlane 500, with air conditioning, for between $2500-$3000!) The non-limited editions range from $7.50 to $250, with most falling into the $10-$50 range; many of those are circa-1950s items.

The 1960s was when porcelain studios made crucial decisions about where they wanted their wares to be sold: The vital choice between quality versus quantity of venues. These studios were not aiming mainly at the Woolworth’s (or even Macy’s) income class of customer. In 1962, the average American family’s income was $6000/year. For families headed by white-collar and professional workers, however, the average was closer to $9000; that’s where the discretionary spending was happening. Those customers were shopping in higher end department stores, jewelry stores, and boutique-style gift shops offering elements of the Good Life: silver, fine china dinnerware, and crystal. In other words, upwardly mobile professionals – the class that would be called yuppies during the 1980s. They might not be able to afford Ming vases, like the Mellons or the Gettys, but the idea of being an “art collector” at some level appealed to many. So, the art porcelain studios placed their merchandise only in stores where the discretionary-income customer shopped.

During the 1960s the porcelain-collecting market was driven mainly by the studio’s retailers, both in-store with promotional literature (brochures, price lists, catalogs and press photos) supplied to them by the studio, and retailer advertising in local newspapers. Savvy studio owners established themselves with their national and local governments as a reliable source of upscale and elegant official gifts. These activities further raised the profile of the studio as a purveyor of items that were ‘more special’ than the average working Joe or Jill would own.  By the end of the 1960s several porcelain studios were looking for additional artisans, a larger facility, or both, in order to keep up with the steady stream of orders arriving from their retailers.

Retailers were also the only source of ‘product’ for both old and new pieces. There were no ‘swap meets’ for collectors, no ‘collector societies’, and certainly no internet Yahoo Groups. Collectors who wanted to acquire older pieces submitted want-lists to retailers and hoped for the best. Even more importantly, the studios controlled the price of all in-production pieces. Stores were not allowed to run sales. The price of any current porcelain sculpture (they were never called “figurines”…that word was for tchatkes that anyone might buy at Sears, J C Penney, or Woolworth’s) was the same no matter what shop it might be sold by. As for others, well… “supply and demand”, baby!

Market Boost and First Nail in the Coffin – 1970s

By the early 1970s the concept of “quantity-based retail exclusivity” had really taken off. Porcelain studios were publishing price lists two or more times a year showing a progression of rising prices for their in-production designs. The “you snooze, you lose” signal was clear, even without subtle prods such as the dagger symbol or nc (“near closing”) designation that appeared next to several Cybis limited editions on every newly-released price list from 1970 onward. Their Spring 1976 list’s limited editions range from a low of $475 for Rapunzel to $4250 for At the Council Fire.

Boehm’s 1976 price list has a column showing a piece’s declared issue, followed by another column showing how many pieces have already been spoken for as of the price list’s publication date. The list also flags “anticipated edition closings” during that calendar year. The limited-edition pieces on that list range from $300 for Blue Gentians to $9500 for the Brown Pelican. There is also the Eagle of Freedom, an edition of 13 at $35,000, and a seascape called Fondo Marino at $28,500. The latter, introduced in 1970, had already sold 23 of its issue of 25.

Retailers were asking top dollar for completed/discontinued pieces that they acquired from estate sales. For example, a 1973 flyer from Armstrong’s Gallery offered a circa-1950s Cybis House of Gold madonna and child for $4000; this non-limited-edition piece sold for $125 during its late 1950s-early 1960s production.

Helen Boehm, who resembled a heat-seeking missile when it came to spotting new marketing opportunities, went to England in 1970 with the intention of establishing a satellite studio there – and did exactly that (Boehm of Malvern.) This is also when some artists left the employ of Royal Worcester to strike out on their own. Three designers (Lovegrove, Nichols, and Palmer) jumped ship and started Albany Fine China in 1972. Rick Lewis departed in 1974 to launch Hereford China. Ronald van Ruyckevelt opened a small studio of his own, first in Malvern and later in the USA, in the early 1970s while still doing commissioned designs for Royal Worcester. Brian Ormerod and Simon Joyner paired up to form Bronn Fine China; later that decade, they emigrated to the States to partner with Brielle Galleries as Bronn of America. In New Jersey, Irving Burgues and William Kazmar both opened studios in the 1970s. Lazslo Ispanky, having parted ways with Cybis in the mid-1960s, operated his own studio for a while but then sold it to Goebel in 1976, for whom he then designed. The field of “art porcelain”, now firmly established as a market presence, was getting crowded!

It was inevitable that other retail sectors would jump on the limited edition/investment bandwagon and thus provide the first nail in the coffin for the art porcelain market. This first kiss of death (sorry for the morbid similes) came from the “collectibles marketers” such as The Franklin Mint, Bradford Exchange, Hamilton Collection, and Danbury Mint.  It’s important to understand the ripple effect that these companies had on the art porcelain market.

Some of them had launched during the 1960s as private mints that produced “collector sets” of rounds and medallions for numismatists.  Those early proof sets were actually not a terrible investment because they contained a large amount of silver and sold for less than $50 when first issued. But when these companies took note of the burgeoning collecting craze, they branched out into offering various items whose manufacturing was subcontracted out to overseas factories: decorative china and porcelain plates, die-cast model cars, knives, LP records, dolls, etc. Some companies, such as Bradford, first appeared in the early 1970s to take advantage of the new “limited edition collector plate” market. Such plates are fast and easy to produce because they use a simple mold and most of the decoration is applied via decals. Hand-work is minimal. They, too, expanded into offering all sorts of items marketed under various company names, such as the Hamilton Collection under the Bradford umbrella.

Small companies of the same ilk that sprang up during the 1970s were operations like the Calhoun Collectors Society which was one of the worst of a bad bunch. But all of them had one thing in common: Creating the illusion that “limited edition” meant “something that will increase in value.” One of the best descriptions of this method was written by Bill Hicks in his 2012 A Sucker Born Every Minute: The Franklin Mint Ripoff blog post.

“The Franklin Mint, like the Danbury Mint, the Washington Mint and others with grand-sounding names are selling organizations that place full-page, impressive and official-looking advertisements in local papers with high-sounding words that give the impression of U.S. government affiliation. (It’s disappointing that some newspapers accept those advertisements because the acceptance gives instant credibility to those claims.) The advertisements always are carefully prepared with clever buzzwords designed to infer great value and urgency but grossly misleading to most readers who lack the knowledge to make an intelligent buying decision.”

Those advertisements were not limited to newspapers, of course; they also appeared by the dozens in mainstream magazines as well as every edition of the “collectibles” magazines that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s: Collector Editions, Collector’s Weekly, Collector’s Gazette, and of course – those price guides! Did anyone really believe the values that those guides cited? Unfortunately, yes, and that fueled even more buying of items of dubious worth and quality. Existing customers were barraged with direct-mail advertising as well.

Another popular trick of these marketing companies was to describe their item as “limited to only [a specified relatively low number of] firing days.” Consumers naturally assumed that those days were meant to be consecutive, i.e., that the item would only be produced for 6 weeks or whatever, but that was not what happened. In a 1998 lawsuit, for example, Franklin Mint admitted that “firing days does not refer to consecutive days of production. These firing days might be spread out over months or years, in some cases producing thousands of identical items.”

These companies just kept pumping out more ads for new “heirloom quality” items, in an ongoing flurry of flim-flam that kept the delusion of ‘investment’ alive and kicking in the minds of the general public.

Blue Skies with Storm Clouds Approaching – 1980s

The 1980s (the “greed is good” decade) was a paradoxical one for the art porcelain market. People were spending at a record pace, and the ever-increasing retail prices of porcelain sculptures reflected that. It became popular for retailers to hold semi-annual events at which representatives of a given porcelain studio presented their new Spring and Fall introductions. Invitations were sent out to the store’s database of regular customers and – floor space permitting – these could be quite elaborate with food, drink and themes. Brielle Galleries became famous for these; owner Ira Jacobson said that it wasn’t unusual for him to spend $100,000 on a single event (which was more than covered by the sales receipts that day.)

Some studios and individual artists used the mass-market-collectibles companies to their advantage. Companies like Franklin actively solicited porcelain designers, offering them a commission to create an item that the marketing company would then produce under their branding. Susan Eaton, a freelance designer, designed many unicorn and pegasi figurines for both Lenox China and Franklin Mint as well as many limited-edition pieces for Cybis. Ronald van Ruyckevelt designed dozens of items for Franklin, and David Fryer did quite a few for Danbury Mint’s division in the UK. If the artist was well-known, their name would be used as a marketing factor for the item; if not, they remained anonymous. In any case, payment was typically a one-time thing rather than a royalty arrangement.

Helen Boehm partnered with Bradford’s Hamilton Collection division during the 1980s in order to market many collector plates and quite a few Boehm roses. Their arrangement was different from most, because Boehm often provided the material product rather than just a design or sample maquette. Mass-market Hamilton/Boehm items are easily identified by their high limited-edition quantities, although how anyone could possibly be impressed by something advertised as “an edition of only 9800” is beyond my comprehension.

Even Cybis got into the act, hooking up with Hamilton to supply a design for a porcelain head for a clown doll, every part of which was made in Asia but was cleverly marketed by Hamilton as the “first-ever porcelain doll to bear the Cybis name.”

Studios and retailers were flying high, and customers felt secure in the knowledge that their porcelain collection was a solid investment. Imagine how much their children would be able to sell that new $3000 limited edition Boehm bird study for, someday! Why, it might even pay for their grandchild’s college education….

But something strange began happening as the mid-1980s approached…something that had never been seen before. Retailers began running sales on art porcelain sculptures!!

Retailers first began discounting Cybis in the early to mid-1980s; long-time New Jersey retailer Jane Smith Gifts ran an ad in October 1984 for “all Cybis 40% off.” This was not a going out of business sale; the following December, she increased the discount to 50%, and not for the final time either.

It wasn’t only the small boutique shops/galleries that were doing this. In 1982 and 1984, upscale department store venues began including their art porcelain stock in scheduled storewide sales; previously, such items had been excluded. An ad from Marsh’s in February 1984 includes Lladro’s La Gondola reduced from $1750 to $1225, Burgues’ Redheaded Woodpecker from $1200 to $700, and Boehm’s Sleeping Beauty Rose from $285 to $171. It also mentions “other famous name limited edition figurines and plates through 1982″ on sale 30%-50% off.

1986 saw a major shift in retailer advertising of some art porcelain brands. ‘Normal’ ads virtually disappeared, to be replaced by periodic sale ads such as the one from a Davenport, Iowa department store in March 1986 marking all Cybis down to half price. In Sept 1986, Zimmer Brothers in Poughkeepsie marked down their entire porcelain inventory, including Cybis and Boehm, by 30%-70%.

Brielle Galleries owner Ira Jacobson, in his memoir A Quest for Excellence, explains the change this way:

“The first instances of retailer discounting were in sterling silver flatware. A major silver manufacturer agreed to allow a retailer in southern New Jersey to begin offering its products below suggested retail prices. At about the same time, the Federal Trade Commission determined that the fixed retail prices that many of our studios set were, in fact, restraint of trade, and made them illegal. Instead, the studios could only offer suggested retail prices, which retailers could then opt to discount.”

Retailer ads that appear in 1987, 1988 and 1989 almost always mention sales and discounts of 40% or 50%. In May 1988, Addessi Jewelers of Ridgefield, CT, held a “first time ever half-price sale of Cybis Porcelain…choose from more than 200 in-stock pieces”. A Hamilton Jewelers (Palm Beach and Boca Raton) ad offering 50% off on all Cybis and Boehm was part of their 75th Anniversary sale in Nov 1988.

Addessi’s mention of “more than 200 in-stock pieces” of Cybis highlights another change as well: the studios were no longer taking unsold stock back from their dealers for credit against new orders, as they once did. During the 1960s and 1970s, this practice was common because there were always new orders coming in. But customer demand had begun to slow a bit in the mid-1980s in the face of those constant price jumps and some customer-base dilution due to the increased “studio population.” Retailers with limited display space had to make room somehow and now, according to the recent FTC ruling, they could do it by putting pieces on sale. This did not sit well with the studios, who wanted their items’ value perception to remain high.

Some studios (such as Cybis) responded to the pressure of lowered demand by raising their prices even more; not a smart move. Others, such as Boehm, expanded their offerings of home-décor items (even adding porcelain cremation urns!) to appeal to a wider audience at a somewhat lower price point whilst keeping the prices of their traditional items high. The small independent studios, who didn’t have several decades of customer loyalty and name recognition, struggled the most. Some (such as Albany, Hereford, Burgues, and Kazmar) did not survive the decade. A change in the market was definitely in the air.

Fast Downward Spiral – the 1990s

Several things came together during the 1990s to accelerate the ultimate downfall of the art porcelain market.

(1) The general economic slowdown during the first half of the 1990s was bad news for the luxury-items sector, which included art porcelain studios and many of the upscale independent shops that formed the bulk of their retail network. Many stores either stopped carrying big-ticket décor items, ending their relationship with studios like Cybis and Boehm, or went out of business entirely. Even Brielle Galleries, once a national flagship venue for Cybis, Boehm, Connoisseur of Malvern and Bronn, had cut back their inventory and advertising dramatically by 1993, preferring instead to focus on items selling for under $500 and in many cases $100 or less.

(2) These cutbacks and closures had a huge effect on the studios themselves.  Having lost most of its dealer network, Cybis shut down for most of 1990 and re-emerged in November offering to sell directly to the public for the first time in a half century. Bronn ceased retail production, Boehm closed its UK studio, and Connoisseur of Malvern was sold twice during that decade (neither ownership ever coming close to either the quality or quantity of the original, despite even re-issuing replicas of previously-completed editions…. a deplorable practice that Cybis also indulged in.) Numerous small studios in the UK sprang up like mushrooms overnight during the 1990s, due to closures and layoffs from established firms, and disappeared just as quickly.

(3) The mass-market-collectibles space became completely saturated; there was just too much “stuff” of dubious value. As more decisions in lawsuits against several companies for deceptive advertising were handed down, public perception of quantity-based value was starting to change. The overall ‘limited edition as investment potential’ concept was increasingly being perceived as fool’s gold.

(4) A generational change was occurring among the customer base. Fortysomething collectors who in the 1960s and 70s had spent big bucks on collecting art porcelain were now approaching retirement age, if not actually within it. Thoughts of downsizing do not mesh well with curio cabinets full of fragile objects, especially if the collector’s offspring don’t share that particular passion. The boutique retailers who originally sold the porcelains had either disappeared or weren’t buying; antique dealers didn’t consider them old or rare enough: “Circa-1800s Sevres? sure; circa-1960s Boehm? no, thank you.”

(5) The continued proliferation of low-cost offshore-made goods during the 1980s reinforced a disposable-goods mindset among consumers. Why spend big bucks for a handmade whatsit when something that looks almost as good can be bought for a fraction of the price? If/when it breaks, or is no longer trendy, or you simply don’t like it that much anymore, give or throw it away and buy something else. People came to care less about how an item was made, and more about how low the price was. At the same time, the artisans who had produced the porcelains of the 1930s through 1970s were literally dying out. With the studios closing or closed, there was no next generation to follow them.

(6) One word: eBay.

eBay was the final nail in the coffin of the art porcelain market. The restricted-access (for buying and selling) days were suddenly over. Competition brought prices down with a resounding thud; it’s tough to find anyone willing to pay $60 for a Cybis Baby Owl when there are 40 or more of them listed on eBay at any given moment. But you paid $90 for it in 1982? Sorry; doesn’t matter. And the limited-edition Ophelia that you bought in 1974 for $875? Yes, she is very pretty but one of them sold last week for only $190, so…

Crash and Burn – the 2000s

For all practical purposes, the art porcelain market (as we once knew it) ended in the early 1990s. A decent argument could even be made for pushing that back a bit further, to the late 1980s – depending on the studio.

In February 2003, Helen Boehm sold the studio and its assets to Dallas-based Home Interiors & Gifts, described as a “manufacturer and direct seller of decorative accessories and gifts.” In most cases, the manufacturing was done offshore although the intention was to have the original Trenton Boehm factory produce some items in porcelain. It didn’t work out well. Concurrently, an alternate branding of “Boehm at Home” was used for offshore-made items of lower quality porcelain, resin, and metal, with marketing that strongly resembled the Hamilton/Danbury/Franklin model. The enterprise lasted barely five years. In 2009 a private investor attempted to resurrect the studio at its old location and struggled for a few years before being shut down and evicted in 2014. In 2015 the Boehm name and any remaining inventory was purchased by an Ohio investor who is building a American porcelain art museum; there is no porcelain production involved or planned.

The third and final owners of the Connoisseur of Malvern brand and assets stopped their relatively spotty production by 2003. Some of their designs had been sold to Home Interiors for reproduction offshore in resin.

The Cybis studio never employed any full-time resident artists after 1989. After a brief, unsuccessful foray onto eBay in the early 2000s their only retail venues were local in-studio sales and a website that did not have a site-based shopping cart. Most of their 1990s “introductions” were simply alternate colorways, downsized replicas of closed pieces, and sale of their leftover backstock. Their last original design introduction was a reindeer in late 2008. Their website’s prices were wildly unrealistic for the existing market, and purchasers sometimes experienced lead-times of many months between their payment and the receipt of their item. Although the neglected and deteriorated studio building was not sold until this year (2021), normal production at Cybis effectively ceased at the end of December 1989.

It’s interesting to look at which porcelain studios did survive the apocalypse, and how.

An outlier during the 1990s was the establishment of Bronte Porcelain in the UK by several people who had owned or worked for current or former studios. Bronte was launched in 1996 with Henry Sandon, a renowned expert on Royal Worcester porcelain, as one of its directors. In addition to creating porcelain sculptures under its own name, Bronte also did commission work for other studios, including the third incarnation of Connoisseur of Malvern. Some of the Bronte artists also moonlighted by doing off-hours work for other studio brands. (Bronte’s story will be among my future Lost Porcelain Studios posts.) In 2015, Bronte changed its name to Chamberlain Porcelain, the name being an homage to one of the circa-1800s porcelain factories in Worcester. Most of the items on offer were décor items but they also utilized molds from several previously-completed Connoisseur of Malvern birds and animals, obtained from former Connoisseur owner Terry Lewis.

And what of Royal Worcester itself? Repeated layoffs in 2003 and 2005 led eventually to the closure of their Severn Street factory in 2006. After declaring bankruptcy in 2008, the brand name and IP was bought by the Portmeiron China group which also owns Spode. They produce no art porcelain items. However, vintage Royal Worcester pieces by golden-era named artists such as Doughty and Lindner continue to bring prices at or close to what they sold for back in the day – something that cannot be said for almost any other surviving art porcelain brand.

Goebel, who marketed pieces designed by Ispanky and Granget during the art porcelain heyday, became insolvent in 2006, at which point any remaining production of art porcelain stopped. The company was acquired by a venture capital firm in 2010 and operates today as a general home-décor-items company much like many other mainstream firms. (Internet sources vary as to the year that production of Hummel figurines ceased but it was definitely during the 2000s.)

Ironically, Lladro (which was not typically regarded as art porcelain) managed to retain their original ownership and production scale longer than most. Due in large part to their widespread name recognition via a wide dealer network, significant product line and retail outlet expansion, and very active collector-loyalty programs (something most of the higher end studios did not pursue) it was not until 2016 that an outside investment firm acquired a majority stake in the company.

It’s depressing – to say the least – to observe the loss of perceived market value for almost all art porcelain. Occasionally I’m asked whether the market will rebound someday. Sadly, none of the ingredients required for such a rebound are likely to ever exist together again. On my Cybis Archive website I have a post discussing the current market value percentages of Cybis, but the same formulas apply to almost all such pieces other than Royal Worcester iconic artists. A general rule of thumb is that today’s seller shouldn’t expect to get more than 20% of what their mint condition sculpture sold for during the 1980s. An 80% loss of equity is painful, to be sure (I know from personal experience!) and the only balm is to try to appreciate these pieces only for what they are, rather than on any financial-value basis. In trying times such as these, perhaps a simple momentary lifting of spirits might possibly be “value” enough?

  2 comments for “The Life and Death of the Art Porcelain Market

  1. Joe Schiff
    January 26, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    Ebay is, as you so succinctly put it, the nail in the coffin. It has become the dumping ground for art for a quick buck. People see something worth an inherent price and priced accordingly, and suddenly remember seeing one of the same item in their attic, and dump it for a ridiculous fraction of it’s true value. I don’t blame ebay, I blame the nitwits who dump there. Not sure if this can be addressed somehow by ebay, but it certainly should be looked at as a negative issue.

    • January 26, 2022 at 3:40 pm

      Ah, but eBay has no incentive to change that status quo, because it is also a prime source for resellers. Most people who sell on venues such as Etsy, Ruby Lane, and also eBay itself, use eBay as their main source. It’s very common for someone who sells on Etsy, for example, to spend hours each day mining listings on eBay, Mercari, LetGo/Offerup, and similar sites where items have been dumped for minimal prices – either because the person doesn’t know what they have, or doesn’t want to be bothered researching it. Thus, those lowball listings/sales are often a great double-dip for eBay: they collect their fee from the first seller and then sometimes from the eBay seller who eventually re-sells it! In those cases it’s common for the reseller to wait at least 3 months to list the item, so that the low price they paid no longer appears in the eBay Sold search function. This increases the odds that they will make a profit on the item. Many sellers list on both Etsy and eBay, by the way, and sometimes on their own website as well.

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