Collectors the world over, and particularly in the great antebellum homes of the Deep South, prize what has become known as “Old Paris” or “Vieux Paris” porcelain. This refers to the incredibly gilt, painted, extremely decorated tableware, vases, urns, clocks, figures, inkwells, perfume bottles, and all manner of accessories created in and around the city of Paris, by over 30 different factories and hundreds of artisans, from the mid-1700s through the end of the Second Empire. Styles vary from neo-classical to rococo revival, Gothic to Renaissance revival. The history of these pieces is as colorful as the items themselves.
In the 16th century, trade with China began, and in the European aristocracy the collecting craze was born. Rulers in Italy, Germany, and France so desired the fine porcelains of the Chinese nobility, that they began costly experimentation to try to duplicate the secrets of real hard paste porcelain. Many tried to recreate the delicate ceramic beauties, but none achieved success until 1708, at Meissen, in Germany. Quickly, workmen who knew the ways were bribed and sponsored by nobles to come set up production in other locations.
Hard paste porcelain production came to France in the early 1740s at the Vincennes factory, but was moved promptly to Sevres and taken over by King Louis XV, who enacted laws restricting other French manufacturers, creating a virtual monopoly. Paris’ potters, decorating studios, gilders, and merchants were so vocal with their complaints over the restrictions, and public demand for the fine pieces was so high, that eventually the King’s Council relaxed the rules to allow manufacture of monochrome pieces without gilding or relief decorations.
Soon factories were seeking the patronage of nobles (most famously Marie Antoinette) for protection from the authorities, influence, and a secure source of business, which caused the royal factory, and in turn, the King’s coffers, to suffer. Underpaid royal artisans and disgruntled craftsmen often stole molds and materials from Sevres to seek new employment with competing Parisian houses. Eventually the often ignored rules were relaxed, and the French revolution saw to the end of royal privileges and the resulting restrictions .
No single porcelain mark is synonymous with Old Paris porcelain, and it is estimated that around 70% of production in this era had no identifying marks at all. Due to the demands of a style- conscious public, the forms and decoration of the wares were produced in tremendous variety, changing with the fashion of the moment. Early 18th century pieces, despite regulations, floral decorations with scattered sprigs and sprays were popular. Later 18th century Louis XVI pieces became more intricate, with birds, figures, and cupids featured. Marie Antoinette favored cornflowers, while the Napoleonic era saw an opulent visitation to neo-classicism. As the 1800s progressed, decorative arts flourished, and Gothic, Rococo, and Ornamentalism blended to create some of the most intricate works yet. The vast variety of forms contributes to the unending interest in Old Paris.
So, what should a collector look for in Old Paris? Since so many pieces are unattributed, and so many wonderful examples came from so many makers, there is no single “must have” mark to look for. Jacob Petit, Dagoty, Edouard Honore, and many others became known for their workmanship in the craft, and the factories of Sevres and Limoges were, of course, quite famous. However, condition is most important when looking at porcelain. Applied flowers, figures, and other dimensional decoration is delicate, so always inspect carefully for missing pieces, chips, and visible repairs. Also the condition of the gilding and glaze are important. Exotic character figures are rare; look for Chinese noblemen, sultans, fortune tellers, nuns, street vendors, etc.
As always, and most importantly, collect what you love. An object’s value is meaningless if it’s hidden away in a vault, instead of gracing the mantle in your antebellum home, or brightening up your spot for morning tea. Happy hunting! Please visit our website to see our fine selection of Old Paris porcelain by Jacob Petit, Dagoty, and Sevres, and more. www.oldemobile.com