Monday, June 24, 2019

Desert Orchid by Albany Fine China

Back in 2002, someone who attended the Bring Out Your Chinas event in southern California posted an album of photos to HayNet. BOYC was a gathering of all of the serious china heads in the hobby, and there were some incredible models on display. I poured over the photos, amazed by the variety of makers and exquisite horses. One of the pieces that really struck me was an Albany Fine China portrait of the great steeplechaser Desert Orchid. I had never seen one before and was dazzled by his dynamic galloping pose and substantial size. At 12 inches measured from hoof to eartips, he's on a scale with other enormous china pieces like Hagen-Renaker's Nataf.

At the time, I only dabbled a bit in chinas. I had a small collection of Hagen-Renakers, and I was familiar with Beswicks, Royal Worcesters, and some of the German makers, but Albany was largely a mystery. (Even now with all the power of the internet at our finger tips, there isn't a great deal of information to be had about the company or its products.) Still, I resolved to find an Albany Desert Orchid for my collection if I could.

Surprisingly, within a few months, I stumbled across a custom glazed Desert Orchid on eBay. He had been glazed by Lyne Raff to a rich chestnut frame overo, and as a fan of Thoroughbreds, especially colorful ones, I had to have him. (Lyne has since left the hobby, but she was a well-known customizer and sculptor with a deliciously quirky sense of humor.)

A short time later, an OF Desert Orchid came up for sale on eBay, and my sister had by that time fallen in love with the piece as well, so he quickly joined her collection. (We suspect this is the piece that was at BOYC.)

In retrospect, we both feel fortunate to have acquired our Dessies when we did because Albany horses, particularly Desert Orchid, have proved to be quite scarce over the years. Having done some research on the company for this blog, I finally know why.

The company was founded in 1972 by three former Royal Worcester employees, and they made a variety of porcelain figurines---people, horses, dogs, birds, etc. They made several famous racehorses including great English champions like Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard as well as a few pieces representing various breeds like a Thoroughbred, Arabian, Palomino, Welsh Pony, and Tennessee Walker. As far as I know, all of the horses were sculpted by David Lovegrove except for Desert Orchid which was sculpted by Lorne McKean. The horses were intended to be produced in limited runs of 100 to 500 pieces, but given their scarcity, most collectors and dealers agree that none of the runs were ever completed. In fact, I've seen estimates of 50 pieces or less for some of the the horse molds.

There are several factors that contribute to the rarity of these models. One is undoubtedly their size; large ceramic pieces are prone to slumping when molded or fired. The complexity of poses is also challenging. Mill Reef and most of the others are at least balanced with "a leg at each corner" as Thelwell so aptly put it, but Desert Orchid rests on only two small points of contact. I have not been able to find good information on production dates for the horses, but based on articles and ads I read in a British newspaper archive, most of Lovegrove's horses were available by the end of 1973. How long they were actually offered beyond that is anyone's guess. After the late 1970s, the only references to Albany pieces I have been able to find refer to the dogs, and more often the birds, rather than the horses the company produced.

This November 2, 1973 advertisement in the Illustrated
London News lists most of the Albany horse molds.

Desert Orchid is most definitely an outlier, both in terms of who sculpted him and when he was made. The real horse was foaled in 1979 and didn't reach the zenith of his career until the late 1980s, retiring finally in 1991. Even if Lorne McKean sculpted the piece for Albany while Dessie was at the height of his fame, the piece couldn't have been ready before 1990, nearly 20 years after the other horse molds were released. However, it seems more likely that the Desert Orchid model wasn't released until after the horse retired, so probably 1992 at the earliest.

Which brings us to the primary reason that Dessie is so rare. In 1995, Albany suffered a catastrophic fire at their Lowesmoor factory. Sadly, most of the horse molds were destroyed in the conflagration. 
With all that in mind, it's not surprising that my sister and I saw only one other OF Albany Dessie in the intervening 15 years since we purchased ours. And that one was already in the hands of another collector. (Interestingly, if you click on the link, you'll see that that Dessie is positioned in a more upright pose and has slightly different shading and coloration than my sister's piece pictured above.)

Then, out of the blue in the summer of 2017, another custom glaze Desert Orchid came up for sale as part of a collection dispersal sale. This one had been glazed to a soft dapple grey by Anthony Tomson, an extraordinary artist who got his start working for Royal Worcester. His glaze work is quite rare and highly sought after. Needless to say, my sister went for broke to acquire it.

By that time, I had more or less resigned myself to never finding an OF Desert Orchid for myself. The likelihood of me acquiring one, especially at a price I could afford, wasn't high. I still wanted one for sure, but I was content to live vicariously through my sister's OF piece.

Until last month.

Of all of the crazy things to turn up at an estate sale in Georgia---which is a veritable wasteland for model horse liberations, especially china horses---an OF Albany Desert Orchid appeared in a sale listing for an upscale Atlanta neighborhood not far from where my sister lives. Needless to say, I frantically called her to see if she could go check it out. Being the awesome person that she is, she got the morning off work (her boss thinks we're really weird now) and rolled out at the crack of dawn to wait in line for the sale. Given how expensive the house was (it had just sold or $2.75 million) and how classy and obviously expensive the decor was, we were worried that Dessie might be priced pretty high. We agreed to a budget and crossed our fingers. Luck was with us though and I was thrilled to receive a text from my sister shortly after the sale started that read, "I GOT HIM!"

My Dessie's former owners were British, and they had a great deal of other horse art that was not part of the sale, so we think they may have had a connection to racing in England. Perhaps they were part of a syndicate or maybe they were just ardent fans? Whatever the case, this fellow brings the tally of Albany Desert Orchids known to me up to 3 OFs and 2 custom glazes. I wonder how many others might be out there lurking in the collections of Thoroughbred fans or owners?

P.S. Anyone looking to sell an Albany Mill Reef? I need one. :D

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Breyer Bronze Age

When Nancy Young's Breyer history books were published in the mid-1990s, I poured over them for hours and days and weeks. I pretty much read the first book (and the later updated book for that matter) cover to cover including all of the weird minutiae about variations, stamps, mold flaws, and other oddities in the footnotes about each mold. I found answers to all sorts of questions I'd had over the years and learned many new tidbits as well.

One particular oddity that stuck with me was an anecdote about an experiment with bronze paint that Peter Stone and Chris Hess conducted.1 According to Nancy, sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s, Peter and Chris experimented with a bronze-colored rub-on finish called Bronze Glo (or something similar---Peter couldn't recall the name for sure). They tried it on a variety of molds---Peter mentioned the buffalo, some bulls, and possibly the Quarter Horse Yearling.2 Because the finish was applied by hand, it seems likely that it was deemed too time consuming for regular production and nothing ever came of the experiments. Peter could not remember what became of the test models, but presumably, they were taken home by Breyer employees or reground.

Over the intervening years, a few models that seem to be the results of Peter and Chris' experimentation have found their way into collectors' hands. The first one I became aware of was a bronze Jasper the pig that a friend of mine turned up at a flea market in the mid-1990s.

Bronze Glo Jasper
A few years later, my family acquired a bronze donkey and elephant. Two or three other bronze elephants have surfaced since then as well. Interestingly, at least two of the elephants have black painted eyes while some of the other Bronze Glo pieces do not. My elephant, another I have seen, and the one Nancy describes in her book also have a bit of dark shading that gives them an antiqued finish.

Bronze Glo donkey (photo taken with flash)

Note how the paint was not rubbed into the tight wrinkles on the head

A few years ago while surfing eBay, I spotted a bronze-colored Breyer bighorn ram in a lot of miscellaneous models. I was pretty sure it was one of Peter and Chris' experimental models, so I took a chance on it. Sure enough, it was!

(Another photo with flash; the true color is not quite this bright)
Until this past year, however, no bronze-colored equines from these experiments had come to light. Once again, while idly eBay surfing, I unexpectedly turned up a model that had the right look, so I took a chance. This Family Arabian Mare appears to be part of the same experiments, but she is a little different from the other examples I've seen.

As you can see from the photos, she's had a rough life, and while she does have some rubs, the vast majority of the areas missing paint are recessed areas---muscle and tendon grooves, that hard to reach spot behind the elbow, etc. This is consistent with the paint having been rubbed on rather than sprayed on. (I assume her feet lack bronze paint because she was being held by her hooves while being painted?) The same incomplete finish is visible on the head and in the deeper grooves of our bronze Elephant. The peculiar thing about this FAM though is that she is the only bronze model I've seen that was painted over an already finished model, an alabaster FAM. More on that in a minute.

According to Nancy, Peter couldn't remember exactly when he and Chris had experimented with the bronze paint, but based on the extant models themselves, I would guess it was sometime around 1974. The Donkey mold never received a Breyer mold mark or the USA stamp, so that model can't really tell us anything. The Elephant mold did not receive the round Breyer mark until 2000 (or possibly later), but sometime between 1970 and 1974, the USA stamp was added. (The USA mark was added to most Breyer molds around 1970.) Our bronze Elephant has no mold markings, so it probably falls somewhere in that 1970-1974 window. The Elephant mold was discontinued at the end of 1974, resurfaced briefly in 1976 with a USA stamp for the election year, and then was not produced again until the 1990s, so the bronze model probably wouldn't be later than 1974 (unless an old stock model was used which is certainly possible).

The Bighorn Ram mold was introduced in 1969, and while it has a round Breyer stamp, it never was updated with the USA mark. We can narrow the timeline even more with the bronze Jasper pig model---Jasper was not released until 1974. 

The monkey wrench in this bit of logic is the bronze FAM. We know the underlying alabaster FAM was made until 1973, but this mare has only the round Breyer stamp, no USA stamp, which would suggest she was made before 1970. My best guess is that she was perhaps still sitting around the factory as a sample or display model or even as unsold stock when she was grabbed for the bronze paint experiment.

So my guesstimate pegging these models as having been made in about 1974 is reliant on a couple of factors. Jasper was first released in 1974, but molds take about a year to be made, so it's possible some Jasper samples were available by the end of 1973. That gives us a terminus ante quem date---the models can not have been made before late-1973 at the earliest.

The terminus post quem date is a little fuzzier in that it's possible Peter and Chris used an Elephant that had been sitting around for a while as they seem to have done with the FAM. So we can't say for sure they were made no later than 1974, but at the moment, circa 1974 (or even circa mid-1970s) seems like a reasonable guess given the evidence we have from the models that have been found. 

This post is of course predicated on the notion that the bronze/antiqued gold models pictured above are all the result of the same experiment. They do all look similar enough that it seems probable that they are part of the painting experiment that Peter Stone related to Nancy Young. If anyone reading this has a potential bronze glo Breyer, especially on a mold other than the pig, donkey, elephant, ram, or FAM, I'd love to know about it! Please feel free to comment with photos or email me at mumtazmahal (at) gmail (dot) com Thanks!

1. Young, Nancy A. Breyer Molds and Models: Horses, Riders, and Animals. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1999), 322.

2. Ibid.