The Curious Case of the Connoisseur Cowboy

Few Connoisseur of Malvern designs have such a convoluted life history as their cowboy astride a bucking bronco. There are six known iterations of the Connoisseur piece but only one of those was created by the original Connoisseur of Malvern studio owned by Diane and Terry Lewis.

#1: The Original by Connoisseur of Malvern (1993)

This piece’s story began when sculptor Richard Sefton created a model of a cowboy astride a bucking bronco. According to Terry Lewis, one of the founder/owners of the Connoisseur of Malvern studio in Ledbury, England, this piece was originally designed, and the prototype(s) physically created, there in 1993. According to him, the first maquette was not precisely what the studio had in mind and so Mr. Sefton modified the horse’s position to what is shown in this post. Almost certainly, a prototype (artist proof) was then created. However, because the following year (1994) was the final one under the studio’s original ownership, the piece was never produced by them for retail sale.

In 1995 the Connoisseur studio was sold to a man named David Parker who acquired the rights to the name, logo, and molds which he then moved to a facility in nearby Staunton. Some of the existing Connoisseur artists stayed on, and several new designs were produced under the Parker ownership but they appear to have struggled and the business was sold again in 1998, this time to an American businessman named Kenneth Reasoner who was based in Florida.

#2: An Artist’s Proof (year and maker unknown because markings are unavailable)

This piece was sold at auction in Dallas in November 2008. It was described as “English Connoisseur bisque Bronco Buster sculpture” and “marked ‘Connoisseur, A.P., ht 26″, w 23”. Eleven photos were provided but none of the underside which would have shown whether or not the original Lewis studio made this piece. This item sold for a hammer price of $500.

That same auction also included 13 other Connoisseur-branded figures. Of those, only two were original-studio works as per their backstamp photo. The other figures showed via their backstamp photos to not have been made by the original Lewis studio. Seven of those figures were re-issues (replicas) of editions that the Lewis studio had previously completed during the 1980s. Without a photo of the underside marks, it’s impossible to know when this Dallas piece was made (and thus, by whom.) My educated guess is that this ‘artist proof’ is not the original Connoisseur piece from 1993, but is instead connected to the next (#3) iteration.

Interim Relevant Event: In March 2003, the Boehm porcelain studio in Trenton, New Jersey, was sold to a Texas-based company, Home Interiors & Gifts. Home Interiors was one of several “home merchandise party” companies, similar to Tupperware, Pampered Chef, et cetera. They had no manufacturing facilities of their own; the wares offered under their various company brandings were typically made offshore.  A new company (E. M. Boehm, Inc.) was formed but Helen Boehm, longtime owner of the studio, was not one of the principals. Home Interiors registered a new Boehm trademark logo which was similar to the classic Boehm one but with some differences. It is not known whether any porcelain production took place at the actual former Boehm factory after 2003, but there are some indications that it did cease after about a year.

#3: The BRONCO BUSTER given to President George H.W. Bush (2004) – Connoisseur/third ownership markings

After Kenneth Reasoner bought the Connoisseur business from David Parker, he moved the molds and equipment to a warehouse within a Malvern business park. This is where (by several indications) some production took place via an arrangement with the nearby Bronte Porcelain studio although the pieces only display the Connoisseur name (not “Connoisseur of Malvern.”) Mr. Reasoner also registered a new corporation, “Connoisseur, Inc.” in Florida. Having operated previously as a brick-and-mortar retailer of Boehm porcelain, he was acquainted with Helen Boehm who, as noted above, sold the studio and its assets to Home Interiors in early 2003. It seems likely that Ken Reasoner either sold or gave the molds or permission to physically produce the original Sefton cowboy-on-bronco design to either Helen Boehm (between 1998 and 2003) or to Home Interiors (in 2003 or later.) There is no way to know exactly when that may have happened, because Mrs. Boehm and Mr. Reasoner are deceased.

In December 2004 Michael Lohner, CEO of Home Interiors & Gifts, presented a porcelain sculpture titled Bronco Buster to former President George H.W. Bush who had celebrated his 80th birthday earlier that year.

This sculpture was kept for a time at Mr. Bush’s office in Houston but later removed to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. The sculpture was on display during 2017 as part of an exhibit called The Legacy of Ranching. My sincere thanks to the George Bush Library for providing this photograph and permission for me to include it in this article. They also supplied a photo of the marks but that image is not for publication.

However, the marks on the sculpture at the Bush Library do show that it was created after 1998, i.e., during the Reasoner ownership of the Connoisseur name. It has specific backstamp elements that the original studio never used but the Parker and/or Reasoner operations did; it also lacks other elements that the Lewis studio always used but the subsequent owners did not. The Bush piece is not dated or numbered although the marks indicate that it is supposedly part of an edition of 10. Whether any others were actually produced is open to question.

Unfortunately, the Home Interiors company publicly misrepresented the piece as being a product of the Boehm studio. This official press release dated January 5, 2005 contains several factual inaccuracies regarding the sculpture’s branding and design origin:

CARROLLTON, Texas, Jan. 5 /PRNewswire/ — Former President George Bush was presented with an exclusive Boehm (TM) Bucking Bronco sculpture at his private office in Houston, Texas, on December 2 [2004].  EM Boehm, Inc. (“Boehm”), the world’s premier true porcelain sculpture designer and manufacturer and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Home Interiors & Gifts, in partnership with Points of Light Foundation, a community service advocate, developed the original porcelain statue to honor former President Bush on his 80th birthday.

The statement that Boehm “developed” (which most people would construe as meaning “designed”) the original figurine is false; the sculpture was created in 1993 by Richard Sefton for the Connoisseur of Malvern studio in England. At that time, neither Boehm nor Home Interiors & Gifts nor Kenneth Reasoner had any legal connection with Connoisseur of Malvern.

In addition, principals connected with the Boehm/Home Interiors company falsely claimed in television and print interviews during 2005 that the Bush41 presentation piece was a Boehm creation. This misconception led to the Bush Library originally cataloging (and display-identifying) their piece as a Boehm porcelain item and with no credit given to Mr. Sefton as the designer. Those errors have now been corrected, and it is properly cataloged as a Connoisseur piece that was designed by Richard Sefton and presented to Mr. Bush by the CEO of Home Interiors & Gifts.

The size of the 2004 presentation piece is the same 26” height as the “artist proof” that was sold at auction in 2008.  The apparent color discrepancy between the in situ and advertising photos of the Bush41 piece is a result of lighting in both instances. The actual color of the horse is more of a medium brown than red, but it is not as light as it appears in the presentation picture.

A UK-based website about the work of Richard Sefton claims that “The sculpture for George W Bush was painted by Bronte Porcelain, of Malvern.” This fits with the known relationship during this period between the third owner of the Connoisseur name (Ken Reasoner) and one of the founders of Bronte (Terry Lewis, former owner of the original Connoisseur studio) I should mention here that Terry Lewis denied any personal awareness of the fact that Bronte artists were “moonlighting” by working on Connoisseur-branded pieces in the Reasoner warehouse or were producing Connoisseur pieces after-hours at Bronte at that time, and only learned of it later. However, other sources familiar with that timeframe have disagreed with that account.

#4: The BUCKING BRONCO porcelain edition of 41 (2005) – Boehm (Home Interiors) branding

An article in the UK Worcester News on March 18, 2005 reported that

Richard Sefton, of Pickersleigh Grove, Malvern, received a formal invitation to fly to Washington to hand over a sculpture depicting a cowboy on horseback. The piece, entitled Get Off My Buck [sic], was first designed by Mr Sefton while he was working for the former porcelain company Connoisseur of Malvern. The moulds were recently resurrected and a series of 41, entitled Bronco Busters [sic], commissioned. In December, a piece from the series was presented to George Bush senior, who decided that his son should also have one. Mr Sefton said: “The Bushes are a cowboy family, so it’s very appropriate. But when I first did it, I had no idea it would end up in the White House. I’ve got stuff in galleries and museums all over the world, but clearly this is a tremendous boost.”

During that year (2005) Home Interiors did market a declared edition of 41 porcelain pieces under their Boehm branding that they titled Bucking Bronco. It’s uncertain how many were actually made, although there are were at least six. They are 27.5” tall and 23.5” wide, which appears to be slightly taller than the Connoisseur-branded ‘artist proof’ but it may be that the 2008 auction house was not exact in their measurement.

This #5 sculpture is in the holdings of the Museum of American Porcelain Art, whose owner acquired it when he bought the rights to the Boehm name and remaining physical assets in October 2014. It was among the hundreds of items that had been in the Trenton Boehm warehouse from which the previous owner of the studio had been evicted.

I am awaiting permission to publish an image of the backstamp on this edition, but I can describe all elements of it. It has the new Boehm trademark signature that was registered in 2003 by Home Interiors & Gifts; a copyright year of 2005; Made in England; CONB0001 (a design code); Bucking Bronco; and Ltd.No. _of 41

These marks open up a giant new can of worms. The combination of the copyright year of 2005 and “Made in England” means that it is impossible for any of these Bucking Bronco pieces to have physically been made at the actual Boehm studio. Yes, they have the name “Boehm” on them but neither Boehm nor Home Interiors owned a porcelain factory in England during the 2000s. The actual Boehm of Malvern factory, which was indeed owned by Helen Boehm during the 1980s, had shut down in 1992. After that, Boehm’s only studio was their original one on Princess Diana Drive (formerly named Fairfax Street) in Trenton, New Jersey. There was no Boehm porcelain studio in England after 1992. We do not even know if the original Trenton facility was still in operation in 2005; there is some evidence from corporate filings that it was not.

Whoever may have bought one of these sculptures no doubt assumed that they were buying a piece of porcelain that was made by the famous Boehm studio, but that was not the case. Worse yet, we have no way of knowing who did make them. There are only two possibilities:

(1) Home Interiors & Gifts contracted with a (unknown) studio somewhere in England to produce these. This raises the question of why bother to make them in England at all? Why not have them made at the existing Boehm studio in Trenton, if that facility was still operating?

Or,

(2) Home Interiors struck a deal whereby Ken Reasoner (as “Connoisseur”) and Bronte Porcelain would make, or share the production process of, these 41 pieces in England (probably at Bronte’s factory, or at the very least they would be painted there) but the pieces would have the Boehm name on them. (This is similar to how appliances sold under the Sears Kenmore brand name are made by various manufacturers such as GE, Whirlpool, Roper, Caloric, etc; Kenmore does no manufacturing but is merely a brand.) Under these circumstances, any profit from the sales of the pieces would likely be split between Home Interiors, Reasoner, and Bronte. The unusual design code CONB001, which does not correspond to any format that the real Boehm studio ever used, could mean either “CONnoisseur/Bronte” or “CONnoisseur/Boehm.” The identity of whoever did make these is less important than the fact that the actual Boehm studio did not.

It is a shame that anyone who bought one of these under the understandable impression that they were buying a piece of actual Boehm porcelain was misled. It is neither an original Boehm design, nor an item that was physically produced by Boehm artists. They may possibly have been made by Bronte but there is no way to know that at this late date. The retail price of this edition is unknown because I have never been able to find any contemporary advertising for it. The existence of this edition was recently brought to my attention by someone who saw one being offered for sale in a local store this year (2021.) If any reader happens to have any circa-2005 brochures or advertisements or purchase receipt showing this “Boehm” edition, I would love to add that information here; there is a contact form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.

Additional information: If one of these “Boehm” (or even an additional Connoisseur-branded) pieces was actually was also given to George W. Bush (“Bush43”) as the 2005 UK newspaper article posits, it should have ended up in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. They are located in Dallas, on the grounds of Southern Methodist University. Upon inquiry, the Bush43 Library informed me that it has no record of any such piece in their holdings, so it may be that the proposed presentation of one never took place. However, a POTUS does have the option to purchase any item at market value when he or she leaves office. If President Bush (43) was indeed given one and later decided to purchase it for his own home, it would not have been put into his Library/Museum.

#5: The GET OFF MY BACK resin reproduction edition of 1160 (2005) – Home Interiors “Boehm at Home” branding

Home Interiors was not about to stop riding this cash cow/horse anytime soon, as can be seen by their two additional products released the same year (2005) as the “Boehm” porcelain edition. The company had the original molds downsized, not once but twice. Both of these additional versions were produced in resin (described in their advertising literature as “cold cast porcelain” which is a regrettable marketing euphemism for resin with a small amount of porcelain residue added) and manufactured in China. The logo on these is the new “Boehm at Home” trademark they had registered for the marking of resin items only.

The larger of the two versions was sold as a numbered limited edition of 1160. It one is 18.75″ high and 14.5″ at the widest point and came with a separate wood base. The cowboy’s chaps have leatherette ‘ties’ and heavy braided string is used for the bronc rein. It originally retailed for $279.99 and may have been among the merchandise available to the hosts of the Home Interiors home party network.

Included with the piece was the photo of the 2004 Connoisseur porcelain being presented to President George H.W. Bush along with this insert, again incorrectly saying that it had been “a Boehm sculpture.” Also, the critical response to the claim that the 2004 presentation piece was “valued at $20,000” is to ask “valued by whom?” The answer would probably be something like “by Home Interiors & Gifts” and as the old saying goes: Consider the source. Even the limited-edition original-studio Connoisseur of Malvern sculptures that actually did retail in the $20K range during the 1980s are no longer worth that much today!

There was also a Certificate of Authenticity but notice the fancy legal footwork in the first sentence: “an original creation by the master craftsmen of the world famous EM Boehm Inc, Porcelain Studio, created exclusively for the Boehm at Home Collection.” This probably indicates that if the original Trenton studio was still operational, they did the physical downsizing of the porcelain figure’s molds (see this post on my Cybis site for a description of how that is done) and then sent that mold off to whatever factory in China had been contracted to manufacture the resin ones. And of course, that version received a new name: Get Off My Back rather than “Bucking Bronco” or “Bronco Buster.” This is why lawyers get the big bucks, no pun intended.

Many of these pieces offered for sale nowadays are missing some or all of the inserts that originally came with them. My thanks to Etsy seller Daisy Lane Antiques for providing photos of her piece and all of the original paperwork; it was a great help and most illuminating.

#6: The GET OFF MY BACK mass produced resin reproduction (2005) – Home Interiors “Boehm at Home” branding

The smaller resin version, also titled Get Off My Back, was un-numbered and produced in an unlimited and unknown quantity…. probably for as long as it still sold, or until Boehm at Home folded and declared bankruptcy in 2008, whichever came first. This one is 13″ high and 10.5″ wide and the wood base (missing from the one pictured above) is black instead of brown. But the paint colors are the same as the taller resin version, and the fabric/string elements as well. This version retailed for $119.99 and according to one reseller weighs between 4 and 5 pounds. It is possible that this may have been a ‘home party’ merchandise item available to hosts.

The same 2004-presentation photo/blurb was also included with this piece. But instead of a COA these had a “Certificate of Ownership” which has an entirely different wording/claim than the one that was provided with the numbered version. Notice that this one makes no claim of “authenticity”.

#7: The Bronze Sculptures

This version of the same mold engenders many more questions than answers! For one thing, although it was definitely cast from the same mold as were the porcelain version(s), none have been found with any identifying marks in the casting or on the marble base to which it is bolted. Despite one auction house describing it as a Boehm item, it is not marked as such, nor is it a “sample piece”. Why not? Because to date, three of these have been offered for sale in the USA, plus two of either a copy or an additional version in the UK!  It is not known how many others were made, or indeed who made them. When the real Boehm studio, owned by Helen Boehm, had their own bronze foundry in Wales, ALL of their pieces had the Boehm name visible on the casting. None of these bronzes have the Boehm name on them, or indeed any other name or markings.  The Boehm of Llandow foundry closed during the 1990s, either at the same time or shortly after the Boehm of Malvern studio closed. Let’s look at the found-in-USA bronzes first.

This piece was in a Detroit auction house in November 2007 with only this one photo and a description “Bronze sculpture of a cowboy on rearing horse, ht 20″, w 13″. On marble base.” (We’ll pass over the fact that the horse is not rearing, it is bucking.) It supposedly sold for $550 but the exact same piece appeared again at the same auction house in February 2008, at which time it passed unsold.

A second example appeared in a Texas auction house in November 2020.  In this listing the size was cited as 17″ high x 13″ wide (a 3-inch height discrepancy which means that either this or the 2007/2008 lot’s description is wrong) and described as “one of a kind, sample model for the porcelain figurine edition.”  A comparison of the marble patterns confirm that this is not the same piece from the Dumouchelles auctions. Although this one was described in the title as being by Boehm, no photo of any markings supported this claim. This example supposedly sold for $2000 (possibly because it was described as being one of a kind).

A third example is currently being offered for sale at a store in New Jersey. This piece has some white oxidation (referred to as “bronze rot”, a chemical reaction that occurs when bronze comes into contact with chlorine, including chlorinated tap water that is not immediately and completely dried off; it is Not a Good Thing) between the horse’s ears, as shown in the lowest photo.

This is definitely not either of the pieces that were sold in 2007 and/or 2020. As this comparison shows, the three marble bases are all different.

My source was able to examine the underside of the marble base, which would have originally had a (now missing) felt or rubberized covering in order to protect whatever surface the piece was placed on.

The concentric grooves were turned on a lathe before the rest of the marble was polished. The rougher and grooved surface is more adhesive-friendly for the addition of a felt or rubber pad. The holes are for the bolts that connect the bronze to the marble base.

Imagine my surprise when I found what appeared to be additional copies of this bronze in an archived auction sale in the UK! Although cast from the same mold as the three shown above, the UK examples exhibit several differences. Obviously, the bases are different but there are other points of departure as well, indicated by the arrows in this comparison:

At left is one of the USA versions, with a UK version on the right. Yellow arrow = no chaps ties on the UK version. Blue arrow = no trouser seams on the UK version. Purple arrow = no spurs on the UK version. Pink arrow = stirrup attached to the wrong place on the UK version. Orange arrow = horse’s nose improperly shaped/finished on the UK version. Green arrow = hoofs badly finished/attached on the UK version. I’m indebted to Antony Halls for his evaluation of the workmanship and quality differences between these two versions! In his expert opinion, the UK castings are clearly inferior to the ones found in the USA; in his words, the UK examples are “a terrible version, all around. Even the marble base is horrible. It was clearly cast from the same production moulds [as the ones found in the USA]…when blown up on the screen, the [UK] casting’s surface looked pitted, which can clearly be seen in the rear end below the tail.”

Because none of these – either USA or UK examples – are marked in any way, it’s impossible to know who really made them or how many were made. Despite the height discrepancy between the 2007/08 and 2020 auction listings (which I think was an error), the cited widths are identical and so it is likely the heights are also. But whether they are 17” high or 20” high is really immaterial to the question of who made them and when. Because they are unmarked, many of these could have been bought and sold on eBay over the years, just like any other unmarked bronze item. Again, if anyone has any actual advertising literature or a dated retailer ad showing either version of this bronze piece, please let me know. Contact form is on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.

As far as who made these and when, your guess is as good as mine.  However, if you do see any for sale, the only truly accurate description should be “bronze cowboy astride a bucking bronco, copy of a Richard Sefton sculpture for Connoisseur of Malvern, mounted on a marble base; manufacturer unknown.” Any other description, without supporting evidence, would be strictly caveat emptor!

Name index of Connoisseur of Malvern sculptures

Browse all Connoisseur of Malvern posts

Browse the entire Lost Porcelain Studios series

 

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