Dear Helaine and Joe:
I am sending a photo of a 7-inch-tall figurine that has been in my family for over 70 years. It has no identifying marks. How do I find out more about it?
Dear J. S.:
When the owner of a mystery object wants to know something about its age and history, it is of utmost importance to know what to call it. Referring to this piece as a “figurine” is probably technically correct. But it is like the proverbial Mother Hubbard dress, which covers everything and touches nothing.
In an investigation of an object it is imperative to know the material from which it was made. In some cases this may not be entirely clear. Silver plate sometimes masquerades as solid sterling silver, bone passes for ivory, acrylic mimics glass and so on. But there is little doubt this piece was made from porcelain that was fired only once and then painted.
This material is generally referred to as “bisque porcelain,” and the single firing leaves the object with a finely grained surface that is said to resemble human skin. There is no glaze on bisque porcelain. In this case, the baby’s skin was tinted a soft creamy color with suggestions of pink, the eyebrows were painted on, as was the yellow dress with its blue bow and embellishments of raised dots in flower head patterns that look as if they were once gilded.
Bisque porcelain figures like these were called “piano babies.” They came in sizes that ranged from a petit 4 inches tall to a much more robust and lifelike 18 inches. They had one purpose in life: to keep the decorative shawl that was often draped across the top of a piano from sliding around on the slick surface.
Most of us are familiar with paperweights that keep paper from shifting in a draft or flying in a wind, but these bisque porcelain children figures were meant to be shawl weights. They can be found in a variety of poses – sitting up, lying on their tummies, stretched out on their backs or standing up wearing dad’s boots or shoes. Rarely, they are found eating fruit, cuddling a pet such as a puppy or kitten, and occasionally one will be depicted feeding the pet from a bowl or plate.
Original piano babies were manufactured by a number of German firms from about 1880 to the 1930s. But reproductions were made in the 1960s and ’70s, and they have tended to depress the monetary value of the older examples. The piece in today’s question was made circa 1900 and could have been made by any number of companies such as Gebruder Heubach, Kestner, Cuno & Otto Dressel, Limbach or others.
J. S. should examine the base of the piano baby closely because she may find an impressed sunburst mark (for Gebruder Heubach) that is very hard to see. If J. S. finds a maker’s mark the value quoted should go up. Otherwise the sweet little baby should be valued in the $125-$150 range.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at [email protected]. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.