Hardly a cheerful topic for a first posting, but I am SO hot on this issue: the growing number of still-warm-out-the-kiln figures masquerading as genuine antiques. I am shocked, horrified, dismayed, and disgusted. At first, the trickle of figures seemed confined to online auctions (yes, eBay), but now they are slithering into listings at traditional auction houses.
Let's look at a figure that is faked too frequently. Below is a VERY CORRECT figure, referred to as Doctor Syntax Playing at Cards. A Sherratt-style pearlware figure, it was made in Staffordshire circa 1825 and is about 8" high. Doesn't the glaze flow across its surfaces deliciously? Aren't the enamels vivid yet subtle? Note that the bocage is assembled from numerous crisply molded pieces that look as if they have been cut out of dough with a cookie cutter. Altogether quite yummy.
Who was Doctor Syntax? Doctor Syntax was a fictional clergyman who starred in William Combe's trilogy of books, published between 1812 and 1821. The Doctor Syntax books were the Harry Potter books of their day, popular with adults and children alike. Doctor Syntax has a series of escapades, many of which were illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson. He does indeed play cards (in the book published in 1821), but that illustration differs markedly from this figure group. It seems that the story alone inspired the creation of the figure group.
This particular figure group has an interesting recent history. It came to auction after being discovered in a garden shed in England! It was in filthy but superb condition, probably because it had been saved from zealous domestic dusting. Why was it in a garden shed? I like to think that some man hid it there because his wife refused to have it in the house....but we shall never know.
How come the recent copies? A figure very like this is in Brighton Museum and was illustrated in the early 1990s in "Circus & Sport." Seems that this book fell into the hands of aspiring potters in Asia and, one by one, crude reproductions of most of the figures illustrated in it appeared on the market. Below are two such reproductions of Doctor Syntax Playing at Cards.
Nasty, aren't they? You can tell that these are reproductions with almost both eyes closed. No resemblance to any pearlware or creamware I have seen. Aside from the color palette and glazing being very wrong, just look at those bocages. On the original figure, the bocage has been carefully assembled from dozens of individual clay parts, each meticulously molded in its own press mold. But in the copies, the bocage is made from a single lump of clay. I suspect that the copies are much smaller in size than original figures, for this is the usual case. Note that on the copies the lettering on the titles lacks serifs, but early figures always have serifs on impressed lettering.
Copies or Fakes? What do we call these figures? They are routinely advertised as Staffordshire, which, I believe should only be said of figures made in Staffordshire. Anything else is misleading. Also, these figures are NOT at all old, but they are routinely presented as antiques. Unfortunately, when I see a fake figure on eBay, I just must write to the seller. My email usually starts with "I know you listed with the best intentions, so I am writing to explain to you that the figure you have listed is not antique but is of recent manufacture." In many cases, I get an apologetic response, which restores my faith in human nature for a few hours.....only to have my heart broken when the seller doesn't correct the listing! BTW, the very turquoise "beast" above finally sold, listed as "Art Nouveau!" Caveat Emptor.