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The Blue Rapiers Of Dresden
( Originally Published 1913 )
Law Courts in. England and France have heard a good deal about Dresden porcelain lately, but I think the most rascally and Piquant stories have yet to be told. Here is one of them:
The Matchless Pair. A collector of old Dresden groups collected a fine old figure, which he knew to be one of a pair; let us call it figure A. He hungered to possess the other, which we will call figure B. "I'll pay any price you like for the other," he said to a dealer; "match the figure, and I don't mind what I pay." It would be a long and difficult job, the dealer said he didn't at all feel sure of doing it. But he'd do his best. He was off by train and boat the next day to a place where such figures can still be made.
That place is Meissen, twelve miles from Dresden. At Meissen the historic Dresden china-making is still carried on, openly and honestly, in the ordinary way of trade. At Meissen the dealer turned over old patternbooks till he came to the pictures of figures A and B. "That's the pair!" he said. "Make me a pair like that, best quality" the qualities are Gut, Mittel, and Ausschuss (good, medium, and wasters) "and I'll give you a cheque now." The price he paid was about L70 of our money, some fourteen hundred marks. Then he returned to his shop.
The Old Moulds. At Meissen many of the hundredand-seventy-year-old moulds are still in existence, so that old figures and groups can be exactly reproduced in proportions and shape. In paste they cannot, for the clay-beds which used to be quarried have long been exhausted, and even a slight difference in material makes a palpable variation in porcelain pastes. The colouring differs, also; new pigments, fresh from the oven, cannot resemble exactly the look produced in the old colouring by more than a century and a half of exposure to handling and the chemical effects of lightrays. No china-painter today, moreover, possesses exactly the same idiosyncrasy as his forerunner at Meissen did all those years ago, and, consequently, there is difference in the very way the colours are laid on. It is at points like these that the knowing eye and tactile fingers of the connoisseur exercise the expertise which seems so incomprehensible to beginners.
An Audacious Rascal. Well, in due course the pair of brand-new figures travelled from Meissen to the dealer who had ordered and paid for them. He immediately wrote to his gull the collector to say, in effect: "I believe I have come across figure B! But I am not quite sure, and I must examine the two side by side. The people who own figure B won't let it out of their house till it is paid for, so will you let me have your figure A to take to their house and compare?" "Certainly," the collector answered; and so the real old figure A passed into the dealer's hands. Clever, but rascally work was then performed upon the brand-new figure A, to imitate the abrasions which appeared in the real old figure A.
Figure B was similarly scraped, filed, chipped, cracked, and stained, to look the match to the other figure. Then the real old figure A was locked in the safe in the shop, and the dealer wrote to the collector: "Yes, it really is the thing you want, the other figure of the pair! I am bringing it down to you, with the one which is your own already, to-morrow."
But what he carried to the collector was the brandnew figure A, as well as the brand-new figure B. I understand that the collector paid him something like 2,000 pounds, and was delighted to do it. Soon afterwards the dealer took the real old figure A out of his safe, sold it for some £3,000, and pocketed that money also. And the collector was never the wiser. Which shows the need for collectors to study, acquire what the French call flair, and be able to rely on their own connoisseurship and judgment.
"Dresden" Romance. I fancy one could write a book, "as interesting as a novel," about the romantic picturesque Dresden china. It is the best known of all Europe-made porcelains. For nearly 200 years it has been in demand. Everybody has heard of the "crossed swords" of its mark. Most people suppose that any piece of china bearing the blue rapiers must be valuable, though tons of new Meissen china bearing the blue rapiers are shipped abroad every year.The very mark itself seems romantic, particularly when, as was for a time the case, the cross swords were sabres, not rapiers.But really collectable and profitable "Dresden" was the product of the palmy period at Meissen, when a royal purse gave such subsidies that fine work could be done without consideration of cost. That palmy period came to an end with the Seven Years' War; it extended from about 1720 to 1760. The "Marcolini" Dresden, indicated by a star between the hilts, dates from 1774 only, and is not very valuable.
The Cherished Kinds. The pieces most sought after, and bought for thousands of pounds, are the harlequin figures, the tailor and his wife on goats, the sets of musicians, the carnival folk, and the farthingale or crinoline groups (a lady in hooped dress, with a pug-dog, a lover, and a negro page), or ladies in costumes edged with "real lace," and playing cards or musical instruments. Very pleasant and dainty orna ments they are. You can buy the modern versions of them cheaply, the blue rapiers and all. The early Dresden tea-things, too, and the cabarets or coffee-sets and picnic sets, are hunted for.But the hunter must own a long purse. It is useless to warn anybody who is already bitten with the passion for old Dresden; but other readers will perhaps permit me to recommend some less costly and less swindled pursuit.Let us leave "Dresden" alone; already the prices are irrationally and exorbitantly inflated. And one cannot "pick up" old Dresden for a song in odd corners; at any rate, I have never been able to do it.