Wednesday, 5 January 2005

Matchmakers on a plate

Coalportthincrown derbythin

by Christopher Proudlove©

Judging by the plaintive tone of a recent e-mail, one reader's New Year celebrations seemed to be in jeopardy even before December was out.

She wrote: "I wonder if you can help me. As long as I can remember, (50 years!) we have been using a blue and white dinner service, which is now missing many bits.

“Tonight, I broke a dinner plate and I'm trying to get a replacement. I've tried searching the internet with not much joy. Can you tell me more about my dinner service and how I can go about replacing the missing pieces?”

The e-mail goes on to give exhaustive details about the maker, the pattern, the back stamp and the trademarks, from which it is relatively straightforward to date the dinner service to around 1910. That's the easy part.

I know collectors who have spent a lifetime searching out a particular pattern or the work of a particular maker, not all of them with much success.

Indeed, the Business Manager and I found ourselves in just such a position when, on our marriage, my parents gave me six side plates - all that remained from a dinner service given to them by their parents when they married.

Now, some 30 years later, we have enough for 12 place settings! But we were lucky.

The first windfall came from a farm sale. Remember farm sales? On this particular Saturday there were two. The newspaper advertisement for one of them said "Large quantity of Royal Doulton".

Call it fate, but when we arrived there was a tea chest full of the stuff spread out on the farmhouse lawn along with the rest of the household contents and, since the pattern was a perfect match to our six plates, we joined in the bidding.

The second shipment came from nearer to home in our local saleroom and again we found ourselves bidding on a large collection, probably from a house clearance. We no doubt paid too much at the time, but what we bought is still in regular use.

Other bits and pieces - particularly the harder to find stuff such as the egg cruet, cheese dish and elegant coffee pot -- came from one or other of the countless fleamarkets we attended in the earlier days of our married life, but now, apart from the fact that we have no more room to buy more, the prices are way beyond our reach.

There are far easier ways to locate and replace missing pieces of porcelain. Indeed, if you have the money, there are people who will do it for you, although I think part of the fun is in the finding.

The first thing I would do if I were starting a search today would be to sign on with some of the local auction houses who either have internet pages of their own, or else have an online presence provided by a third party.

Such pages often give users the opportunity to create auction alerts which send out e-mails whenever something you've said you want turns up in one of the sales. Even if the auction house is miles from your home, it is still perfectly possible to do business there.

Having received an alert, simply phone the auctioneer and ask him for a condition report, that is his considered opinion on the quality and suitability of the lot, which he should give you without prejudice.

Should you choose to, you can place a commission bid with him, which he will execute on your behalf, buying the lot in the sale as cheaply as other bids permit.

In other words, don't imagine that leaving a bid of £1,000 on something which is estimated at £400 to £600 means that you're £400 out of pocket at the fall of the hammer.

On the contrary, if the bidding stops at £500, you'll buy it for the next bid -- £550 or £600, depending on the bidding increments.

Similarly, if the bidding stops at £300, the lot will be yours for the next bid, although chances are, it will have a reserve price, which is a confidential figure agreed between the owner and the auctioneer before the start of the sale.

The auctioneer cannot sell the lot below the reserve, unless he makes up the difference from his own pocket.

Most salerooms, but by no means all, set reserves below the low estimate and bidding generally starts at two thirds of the low estimate. But I digress.

Of course, the fun thing to do would be to go along to the sale and bid for yourself, although not everyone has the time and some people find it too stressful.

If the latter is the case, it often possible to find someone to bid for you, in either one of your friends or your friendly local dealer. However, he'll probably want a fee for providing the service.

All this assumes, of course, that you're dinner service is old enough to have found its way into an antiques fair or an auction room.

Sadly, pottery manufacturers find it necessary from time to time to stop making a particular line and withdraw the pattern from sale, usually because of lack of support for it in the marketplace.

This is particularly unfortunate when a pattern has been in production for a long time. Even though they might find themselves in a minority, customers become attached to it - perhaps they were given pieces as a wedding present or to mark on anniversary - and are upset when they learn that no more is available.

And of course tastes change. Factories need to produce new lines reflecting that change, clearing out all the old patterned stuff to make way for the new.

Fortunately, there are a number of china matching services which exist either literally on the high street or virtually on the Internet with the sole purpose of helping people either replace broken pieces or complete the service from patterns that have long since been discontinued.

I have a substantial e-mailable list of such companies across the country and I'd be happy to pass it on to any reader interested in receiving it.

Another way of finding the pieces you need is to place an advertisement for them in the personal columns of your local paper or in one of the specialist publications read by like-minded collectors.

Arguably the best is the BBC Homes and Antiques Magazine which has a column towards the back specially for the purpose. The cost of advertising in it is not expensive. Another one worth trying is The Lady.

The secret of success is to be patient and don't despair if a search seems fruitless. But whatever you do, don't stop using your priceless old dinner service just because you might break a piece.

Antiques were made to be used, so enjoy them in this new year and good luck in the hunt for additions to your collection.

Pictures show:

HARDEST: this charming porcelain desert service (left) came from the Coalport factory in about 1830. Known as a botanical service, each piece is painted with a different flower. Best of luck!

EASIEST: a 20th century Royal Crown Derby porcelain dinner service, finding replacements for which should prove simple. All you need is your cheque book!

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