Thursday, September 29, 2022

Hagen-Renaker Black Bisque Imposters

The history of model horse manufacturers is full of copies, most of them unauthorized. Many are obvious knock-offs made quickly and cheaply. Very often, they are easy to spot because of crude sculpting, cheap materials, or poor painting or glazing. But some fakes are surprisingly cunning, so much so that they have confused collectors and even fooled company employees. One group of clever look-alikes has intrigued me for years.


Can you spot the imposters?

First, some backstory to set the scene. During World War II, material shortages and rationing meant that foreign imports---from dishes to toys to tchotchkes---fell to almost nothing in the United States, and many Americans sought to fill the void by opening their own cottage industries. In southern California, numerous small pottery companies sprang up during and right after the war. Hagen-Renaker was one of the most successful of these potteries, and they enjoyed booming sales of their animal figurines well into the 1950s. By the late 1950s, however, their sales were beginning to suffer because of a huge influx of cheap imitation imports from Japan.

Hagen-Renaker did their best to stay afloat by offering innovative new wares that catered to the mid-century modern aesthetic of the time, including the Black Bisque line made in Spring 1959 only. The Black Bisque figurines were a strange mish-mash of sculptural styles---realistic, elegantly stylized, and even cartoony. As the name suggests, they were usually finished with a soft, matte black earthenware underglaze (over white slip) mimicking the look of bisque. 


Part of my sister Sarah's HR Black Bisque collection

The Hagen-Renaker mold book (page 70 if you follow the link) lists 29 pieces for the line which features sculptures from almost all of HR's major artists---Maureen Love, Tom Masterson, Will Climes, Nell Bortells, and Helen Perin Farnlund. Several of the items listed never made it beyond the test molding phase however.

While the vast majority of Black Bisque pieces are matte, a handful have a satin finish.

Matte (left) and satin (right) Pick Axe Birds

Most of them were decorated with incised white details, or turquoise pebble glazing, or both.

Incised white detail on the Black Bisque Quail 

Only turquoise pebble glaze on the Bull

Incised white lines and turquoise pebble glaze on the Dodo

The pebble glaze on most Black Bisque pieces is usually turquoise, but some are more green-toned. A few are so dark that they have been described as "pine" green.

Examples of turquoise and medium green


Pine green (it's actually even darker in person)

In addition to the pieces with turquoise (or green) pebble glaze, several Black Bisque pieces with white pebble glaze are known to collectors, too. A Snail and a few other verified Hagen-Renaker pieces came from the archives sale after John Renaker died. (Many thanks to Kristina Lucas Francis for this info!) But a handful of other white pebble glaze mystery pieces have been found as well. For a number of years, they have been acknowledged as Hagen-Renaker pieces based on the recollections of former Hagen-Renaker employees and their striking similarity to known HR pieces. Because of this, they have been included in several Hagen-Renaker reference guides.

At first glance, these pieces appear to fit right in to the HR Black Bisque aesthetic, but they do differ in a few ways, chief among them being their size. As you can see from the picture below, they're quite a bit larger than most HR Black Bisque pieces. That said, while most Black Bisque pieces are around the same size, there are larger outliers like the nodder-headed Dachshund (about 9" long) and an unreleased Rooster.

Stylistically, the sculpting is pretty spot on. The squirrel, for example, looks markedly similar to the skunk sculpted by Maureen Love. They're both an intriguing blend of pointed feet and noses with rounded backs and plumy tails. 

Even the cat fits right in between the medium and small flat-faced cats.

The problem with the white pebble glaze pieces however is that they can't be accounted for in the mold book nor on the Spring 1959 order form. The mold book lists three flat-faced cats---small, medium, and large---but four flat-faced cat molds are known to collectors. Three are typical Hagen-Renaker pieces all posed the same way with turquoise pebble glaze and similar white line patterns on their chests. They look very much alike other than their staggered heights. The fourth is the whited pebble glaze cat which not only faces in the opposite direction as the other cats but also has a tail, something the other three lack. The large cat, despite being listed on the 1959 order form apparently never went into regular production, and only two molded examples are known (one in typical black bisque coloration and the other a custom glazed ginger). (Hagen-Renaker Collector's Club members can see them both on the HRCC Field Guide under the Black Bisque section.)

Similarly, only one pelican is listed in the mold book, but two molds are known. And there is no mention of the squirrel anywhere at all. 

In recent years, there has been growing doubt amongst Black Bisque fans, myself included, that the mystery mold white pebble glaze pieces were actually Hagen-Renakers. When I finally acquired the white pebble glaze cat, I was immediately suspicious that it was indeed an excellent copycat (pun intended) rather than an unlisted member of the Black Bisque line for several reasons. The pebble glaze itself is different in texture and style than what is usually seen on Hagen-Renakers---it is rounder and more raised, like little droplets. The underside of the piece however was the real giveaway. Note how the bottom of the Hagen-Renaker piece on the left is flat while the base of the white pebble glaze piece is recessed with a rim around the edge.


All of my "sitting" HR Black Bisque pieces are consistent with flat bottoms while all three of the white pieces have recessed undersides. (Two of the white pieces are white on the bottom and one is black, but all three are glazed matte black over white slip, just like Hagen-Renakers.)

Another clue that made me suspicious was the quality---or rather, slight lack there of---of the decorative line designs on the white pebble glaze pieces. On HR pieces, these designs are usually rendered cleanly, precisely, and elegantly.

On the white pieces, the designs are a bit crudely rendered and the lines are a little wobbly.

The conclusive proof came earlier this year when a white pebble glaze cat turned up on eBay with an original sticker still on the bottom. Voila! Kelvin Exclusives (made in Japan) is the culprit behind these clever copies! The design of this sticker matches an edge fragment of a sticker on the bottom of my white pelican.


When I saw the sticker, I had a nagging feeling that the name was familiar for some reason. And then it dawned on me that I owned another Kelvin copy of a Hagen-Renaker piece, this cute squirrel clearly inspired by Robyn Sikking's squirrel family. Even the name and sticker design are copied from Hagen-Renaker. This fellow is called "Lotta Chatter," riffing on the Hagen-Renaker family of Mr. and Mrs. Chatter.

 
 

Robyn Sikking was said to have been one of the most copied artists in California, so it's not surprising that knock offs of her popular figurines exist. It is however a little perplexing that a short-lived line like Hagen-Renaker's Black Bisque collection would have been available long enough to not only be noticed but also copied. I have seen a few other faux Black Bisque pieces over the years including a horse, a zebra, and a bull. Sadly, I don't have pictures I can share, but the pieces mimicked Maureen Love's minimalist style surprisingly well. All have white pebble glaze and are about the same size as the real HR examples. I haven't had a chance to investigate Kelvin Exclusives yet, but I would guess those other faux pieces are undoubtedly Kelvin items as well. They certainly appear to match the three pieces I have.

So all that said, while we now know the white pebble glaze black bisque pieces are not Hagen-Renakers, they are still fairly popular with fans of the real Black Bisque pieces. They are charming and display nicely with their pottery cousins. Like many of their real counterparts, the white pebble glaze pieces seem to be somewhat hard to find. I have seen a few examples of each, probably a few more of the cats than the pelican or squirrel, and only one or two of the horse, zebra, and bull. Their seeming scarcity may be real---perhaps the copies sold poorly or they were only available for a short time? Or they may simply be flying under the radar unidentified, especially if their stickers have been removed. Whatever the case, I'm glad to have these interesting imposters in my collection, and I'm glad to finally know who made them.

_____________________________________________________

Acknowledgements:

Many, many thanks to author and collector Nancy Kelly for hosting a scan of the Hagen-Renaker mold book on her website and to purplemountains.com for hosting scans of decades worth of Hagen-Renaker order forms. Both sites are a treasure trove of information! And many thanks also to Kristina Lucas Francis, a fellow Black Bisque fan, for her insight on the glazes used and amazing HR recall!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Turning back the clock on the Breyer Western Pony

One of the perks of working for my alma mater, the University of Chicago, is access to its extensive library collection of more than 12 million volumes. Through it, I also have access to a variety of affiliate libraries in the area with interesting holdings of their own. Last May, I was finally able to visit one of these libraries to look through their issues of Toys and Novelties, a Chicago-based toy industry publication. My primary interest was in volumes from the mid-1940s through the end of the 1950s, seeking new information on the early days of Hartland, Breyer, and some of the companies that copied them.

Nearly 15 years of toy publications. I looked at
every single page.

Much of what I found has already been documented by earlier researchers, but I did turn up some fun new information that I don't think has been published yet. None of it is exactly earth-shattering, but it is the kind of minutiae that hobby history nerds like me live for.

First, some background---the earliest years of Breyer's history as a model horse manufacturer at the beginning of the 1950s are fairly murky. Very little in the way of early documentation has come to light, so collectors have made educated guesses based on the ads, catalogs, and price lists that do exist. We know the broad strokes, that Breyer started with the Western Horse in 1950 after taking over a contract with Mastercrafters Clock and Radio Company formerly held by Hartland. And we know that within a few years, they had added the Boxer, Western Pony, Fury Prancer, Lassie, Brahma Bull, and the Walking Hereford Bull to their line up along with a variety of riders. The earliest known catalog probably dates to 1954, but earlier company-issued catalogs, if they ever existed, have yet to come to light. We therefore have to rely on other sources of information such as toy trade publications like the aforementioned Toys and Novelties for glimpses into Breyer's beginnings.

I started with 1948 and worked my forward page by page over the course of several 8 hour days. The number of Hartland ads in the 1950s in Toys and Novelties far outstripped those by Breyer, but what Breyer submitted was at least colorful and visually appealing. Most issues featured a "New Toys on Parade" section which generally promoted products that had been on the market for a few months and were selling well. The Hartland Victor (free-standing) was listed in the new toys column in 1950, and the Breyer Western Horse (also free-standing) was likewise endorsed in the same column in 1951. (We know both models were available a year earlier respectively, but that has already been covered in my Western Horse Shaped Objects blog series.) I found this nice Western Horse advertisement in a 1952 issue (this is not a new discovery for collectors; it's just pretty). The back of the page features an ad for Breyer's Money Manager bank.

 
While it seems logical that Breyer's second model would be the Western Pony, it may in fact have been the Boxer which was featured in the "New Toys on Parade" column in February 1953.
 


The March 1953 issue is where things begin to get interesting. We know from Breyer historian Nancy Young's research that the earliest ad for a Western Pony she was aware of dated from the September 1953 issue of Western Horseman magazine (as per her published books in the late 1990s). According to Hartland expert Mike Jackson who collaborated with Nancy in the early 2000s, she had by that point come to believe that the Breyer Western Pony pre-dated the Hartland Small Champ, and likely dated to early 1953 if not earlier. The article below puts paid to that theory. Or rather, the photo does!

The article is about toy sales reps Walter and Arthur Krenzien, a father and son team who started their business in downtown Chicago in about 1930. They were one of the biggest promoters for Breyer in the early 1950s, and their ads featuring Breyer models can be found in a variety of 1950s Toys and Novelties issues. This particular issue from March 1953 mentions Breyers only in passing as one of many lines promoted by the Krenziens. It's the photo combined with the date of the magazine issue that knocked my socks off.


Check out the table on the left!

A close up---left to right: Boxer, alabaster WH & WP,
black WH & WP, and palomino WH & WP


To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest proof we have of the existence of the Western Pony and the earliest date known for the black with gold trim colorway for the Western Horse and Pony. Because magazines are stocked and mailed in advance of their issue date, and because a certain amount of time is needed to write articles, lay out the articles, photos, and ads, and get the whole thing printed, the March 1953 issue of Toys and Novelties was very likely out by February of that year, presumably having gone to print at least the month before. Allowing time for writing and layout, it seems very likely that the actual photo used for the issue may have been taken some time in late 1952. Even if the Western Pony (and the black colorway for the Western Horse and Pony) were not yet available for sale in March 1953, we at least know the mold was functional and very likely in use by late 1952. It's entirely possible the Ponies (and the Boxer) were even sold for Christmas 1952.

I did not find an official "News Toys on Parade" release for the Western Pony as I did for the Western Horse and and Boxer, but I did find later ads for the Western Pony with various riders. It's possible the  Western Pony may predate the Boxer but simply wasn't advertised, or the two models may have been developed simultaneously. Given that Breyer was just getting started with model horses (and dogs), they may not have felt the need to promote every new release, or perhaps the Western Pony product announcement simply hasn't come to light yet. We may never know for sure, but it's fun to keep looking.

By 1954, Hartland was advertising their Champ models with cowboys and cowgirls, and by 1955, both Hartland and Breyer were in full swing offering various horse and rider sets. Nancy Young suspected that the Breyer riders probably predated all of the Hartland ones, but Hartland certainly beat them to the punch acquiring licensing rights for popular cowboy characters. But that is the subject for another blog post.

Just for fun, here are some other early Breyer ads I found. The March 1955 issue of Toys and Novelties featured an ad from Breyer wishing a happy business anniversary to the Krenziens.


The May issue from the same year featured the Indian brave and a pair of Cowboys or Lucky Rangers.


I am still working my way through other toy publications, and if I find anything fun, I'll be sure to update this post. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Remembering Krista Wasco

Life is full of surprises, and you never know how the smallest action can lead to something so huge and impactful as a wonderful friendship.

In May 2001, I made a post on Haynet-Exchange, the old hobby Yahoo group for buying and selling model horses, asking to trade my customizing skills for a Peter Stone pony called Sassy. The model had been released a few weeks earlier at Stone's Mayfest event in Shipshewana, IN, and I thought it was a really lovely piece. I was in grad school in Chicago at the time, so I hadn't really been aware of the event until after it was over. Not long after posting, I got a reply from Krista Corry, a hobbyist I didn't know, and she offered me her extra pony. She said it had a small flaw in the paint, but I told her I didn't mind, and she was just as happy to trade for my beginner level painting.

The pony that started it all

It turned out Krista was a fellow Minnesotan who was living just a few hours north of me in Fond Du Lac, WI, and her fiancé just happened to have family in Chicago where I was in school. The next time they were in town, they made a point to stop by to meet me. We had a wonderful time visiting, traded horses, and made a promise to meet up at BreyerFest later that summer. We continued to exchange emails and found we had similar tastes in movies and especially music (grunge, punk, and anything Chris Cornell did), as well as the same snarky sense of humor.

That one silly pony kicked off a 20+ year-long friendship and perpetual pony swap. Krista was glad to send me various OFs and resins of which I would keep a few and paint the rest for her. She even once traded me a window air-conditioning unit for my sweltering apartment in exchange for custom paint jobs. It makes me laugh every time I think of it.

As time went on, we became fast friends and made a point to get together every chance we could. At the Great Lakes Congress in Chicago in 2004, we roomed together and had so much fun all weekend. Krista, who was a talented tack maker and performance shower, took me under her wing and helped me start showing performance. She was generous with her talent and time, and she was always happy to lend tack or advice to anyone who needed it. I learned so much from her.

Krista tacking up her favorite breed

A beautiful Western saddle and bridle made by Krista

My favorite picture of us at GLC

Krista grew up with real horses and earned an equine science degree in college. She was a serious competitor in Western speed events from a young age. As she was in all aspects of her life, Krista was bold and fearless on horseback.

Krista barrel racing

Her heart horse was a bay Quarter Horse gelding named Trouble. His registered name was Sea Deck Go, and he was a great-great-great-grandson of the famous racehorse Seabiscuit. Krista and Trouble kicked ass and took names wherever they went.

Krista pole-bending with Trouble

Sea Deck Go aka Trouble

Krista’s beloved Trouble made the leap into the model horse world when I painted a portrait of him for her on DeeAnn Kjelshus' "Let's Roll" resin. The creativity and versatility of her performance entries was always so impressive, and just like with his real life counterpart, Krista enjoyed great success with model Trouble in just about every performance discipline.

Trouble spinning towards the last fence in a timed jump off

Trouble pole-bending in tack Krista made to match their real gear

A few months after attending GLC, we decided to hit the road together to travel to BreyerFest. To say we had a blast is an understatement. We laughed about loud ice machines, creepy hotel clerks, faulty fire alarms, and hilarious no-diving-or-your-head-will-break-off-and-lightning-will-shoot-out signs. (Trust me, it's really funny when you're punchy from lack of sleep because you showed at NAN until midnight for two days.)



Hanging out with Krista at BreyerFest was always an adventure. We showed at NAN and the BreyerFest Open Show, spectated at the not-a-NAN event, wandered the halls of the HIN/CHIN until the wee hours, and visited a bunch of horse farms over the years. 

Krista feeding a mint to Speightstown at Winstar

Krista and I with Tiznow

After she got married, Krista and her husband Mark moved to Sioux Falls, SD. One year after BreyerFest, I rode all the way back to Sioux Falls with her. We left Kentucky after the Sunday raffle (we didn't win, but not for lack of trying), drove through a crazy, intense thunderstorm, got asked for our numbers at a sandwich shop in Wisconsin, giggled like lunatics at Happy Bunny stickers at a gas station at two in the morning in the middle of nowhere, and finally rolled into Sioux Falls rocking out to Nine Inch Nails at 4am. I spent a couple of days with Krista noodling around Sioux Falls, and then we headed back to Minnesota to spend time with my family at my grandma's cottage. Grandma was also a horse person, and having lived through Seabiscuit's racing days, she was so impressed with and interested in Trouble and his famous ancestor. We had such a ridiculous amount of fun sharing stories during her stay with us.

Krista wanted very much to be a mom, and life with four kids kept her very busy. I didn't get to see her as much when they were young, but we definitely made the most of our time together when we could. 

Krista and baby Jack at BreyerFest

BF shenanigans with my sister, me, and Krista

At BreyerFest 2018, Krista was thrilled to meet one of her equestrian idols, champion barrel racer Charmayne James. She gushed about how amazing it was to get to talk to her at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I was so delighted for her when they ended up on the same flight out of Lexington and got to chat even more. 

Not even a twisted ankle could stop Krista at BF!
 
Krista was also a huge animal lover, adopting strays and purebreds alike. She loved all horses, too, but Quarter Horses, Saddlebreds, and especially cremellos were her favorite. She was good at anything she set her mind to, from making model horse tack to sewing clothes to learning sign language. Krista was the very embodiment of kindness, generosity, and compassion. 
 
Life threw an unfair number of curve balls at Krista, but her kids were her world, and she was their fiercest advocate. She would have done literally anything for them. She was a champion for autism awareness, trans-rights, and the LGBTQ community. Her kids loved Star Wars, and she took Space Mom (General Leia/Carrie Fisher) as her patron saint. We all remember her as a fierce mama bear and a strong woman who spoke out for what was right, but I know Krista would tell us she was just doing what had to be done.

It feels so unreal and wrong that we have lost such a vibrant, selfless, amazing force of nature like Krista. I'm devastated by the loss of my dear friend, and my heart is absolutely broken for her family, especially her kids. The outpouring of love from her friends has at least helped me bear my grief a little more easily. I hope Krista knew how many lives she touched and how many people loved her. She’ll always be remembered, and she’ll always be my best friend.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a Gofundme set up for mark and the kids.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Hagen-Renaker: 1945-2021

At the end of this year, Hagen-Renaker will be closing its California factory for good after 76 years in business. It's the end of an era. While I am terribly sad about this news, it's not entirely unexpected. I've known for some time that there was no one else in the younger generations of the Renaker family interested in continuing the business when the present owners retire, and material and labor shortages during the pandemic have only hastened an inevitable end. (Before anyone panics too much, Hagen-Renaker Tennessee will continue to produce Hagen-Renakers under an official license from the family, a pretty amazing silver lining! More on that later in the post though.)

Hagen-Renaker has offered an amazing array of products over the course of their remarkably long history. In the model horse community, they are of course best known for the incredibly beautiful and lifelike horses sculpted by Maureen Love. Hagen-Renaker produced many other animals, both large and small, like the handsome Pedigree Dog line sculpted largely by Tom Masterson, as well as a variety of domestic and wild animals and even fantasy creatures. The comedic arts of Don Winton, Nell Bortells, Martha Armstrong Hand, and Helen Perrin Farnlund were put to excellent use with the Disney and Little Horribles figurines, and even Moss Renaker, mother of company founder John, designed pieces as well. 

Hagen-Renaker began in 1945 in the garage of John and Maxine (née Hagen) Renaker in Culver City, CA. The company started by making simple dishware and shadow boxes, but they quickly found that the real bread and butter of the pottery business was small ceramic animals, both realistic and whimsical.

An early Hagen-Renaker butter pat (photo by Sarah Wellman)

A handsome couple I like to think of as Elizabeth Bennett
and Mr. Darcy (early
Hagen-Renaker shadow boxes)

An early Miniature lamb

Early Miniature chickens

In the boom years of the early 1950s, Hagen-Renaker moved their production to several buildings in Monrovia, CA. This added space allowed them to branch out and add the larger scale Designer's Workshop line to their production. It featured exquisite horses...

many different dogs...

clowders of cats... 

a variety of domestic animals like chickens...

and much, much more. 

The 1950s also saw the introduction of the Disney line, considered the finest 3D renderings of Disney characters by Walt Disney himself, as well as other imaginative designs like Black Bisque, faux-stone plaques, the Zany Zoo, and the Little Horribles.

A sampling of Black Bisque pieces (photo by Sarah Wellman)

Double horse plaque designed by Maureen Love

Zany Zoo lion

By 1960, however, competition in the form of cheap unauthorized copies from Japan nearly put Hagen-Renaker out of business. They were forced to lay off the majority of their artists, and the company limped along with a skeleton crew. In about 1966, sales and consequently production began to pick up again, and the company moved 15 miles east to San Dimas, CA, where they had more room to expand. Though both the Miniature and Designer's Workshop lines continued at San Dimas, the decoration style was simplified to be more cost efficient. Pieces in the DW line at this time tended to have short production runs, so San Dimas pieces are often more rare than their Monrovia counterparts.

San Dimas Daisy in rare buckskin color 
(photo by Sarah Wellman)

San Dimas Ferseyn in rare steel grey color 
(photo by Sarah Wellman)

In 1980, Hagen-Renaker purchased the Freeman-McFarlin factory almost 100 miles south of their San Dimas location. This new factory had the space and facilities to devote to the production of larger scale ware, and some of the biggest and most spectacular DW pieces were made at San Marcos. 

Nataf, one of the largest DW horses at 12" tall

Sadly, the Designer's Workshop line was never as profitable as the Miniatures line which had remained in production at San Dimas. In 1986, the San Marcos factory was closed up and sold, and all production returned to San Dimas where it remained for more than 30 years. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hagen-Renaker added the Specialties line, featuring slightly larger and more detailed sculptures than the usual Miniature pieces. They even experimented with stoneware finishes for a short time.

Stoneware birds

In 1993, Hagen-Renaker began to make a new line of small DW scale horses, beginning with Jamboree based on a sculpture Maureen had issued independently under the name Maureen Love Originals. A new sculpture for the line followed almost every year, and in 2000, Hagen-Renaker announced the return of the old DW horse molds in a fun variety of colors.

Jamboree issued in 1993 (photo by Sarah Wellman)

Encore issued in 1994

Reissue Large Zara in black produced in 2018

In Fall 2018, Kristina Lucas Francis opened Hagen-Renaker Tennessee, an officially licensed offshoot of the main company. Kristina learned the ceramics trade from HR-trained artists and their pupils, so I can't imagine a more perfect steward of the company's body of work. She has been producing small editions of DW and Mini pieces in exquisitely detailed colors for the last few years. As expected, the Hagen-Renaker Tennessee line has mostly consisted of horses so far, but Kristina has offered tantalizing sneak peeks of animal figurines coming in the future (and of course, the resurrection of the delightful Dead Bird as seen below).

Models produced by Hagen-Renaker Tennessee

Though Hagen-Renaker California will officially shut down in the next few weeks, Hagen-Renaker Tennessee will carry on. Kristina has already begun the process of moving a number of the molds to Tennessee, and she is offering exciting hints to members of the Hagen-Renaker Collectors Club, the best source for information on upcoming pieces. 

Some Hagen-Renaker Tennessee pieces are only available to HRCC members, and membership is only $29 a year. Not only does it allow purchase opportunities for exciting new runs, but members also get access to the Hagen-Renaker Field Guide, bi-monthly online newsletters, a printed annual at the end of the year, and fun Hagen-Renaker swag (mugs, T-shirts, etc). The HRCC is doing a membership drive right now through December 15th, so if you have not already joined, I highly encourage you to do so. (And if you mention my name as the person who convinced you to sign up, I'd very much appreciate it!)