‘I couldn’t understand why anybody wanted to collect it’

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It wasn’t love at first sight for Angela Gräfin von Wallwitz, a leading dealer in early European porcelain.

In 1976, after finishing school, young Baronesse von Feilitzsch, as she then was, volunteered at Sotheby’s in Munich while she decided whether to train as a child psychologist or an auctioneer. “The psychology of sales was very intriguing to me too,” she explains.

One day her boss said he’d like her to give some friends a tour of the Schneider collection. This magnificent assemblage of early Meissen animals, figures and dinner services was, and is, housed in the Lustheim Palace, outside town. She knew nothing about it.

With a week to prepare, she got busy reading. “The books were incomprehensible,” she recalls. Her visit to the palace was not much more helpful. “The porcelain all seemed the same,” she confesses. “I couldn’t understand why anybody wanted to collect all that.”

To solve her problem, she decided to learn every single label by heart. When the group arrived, she says: “I guided them through the collection for an hour and a half without stopping.” She didn’t dare give anyone a chance to ask questions. “I couldn’t have answered a single one,” she laughs.

To pull off her extraordinary feat, von Wallwitz had to remember not only the labels, but also the look of the objects they described. “Strangely enough,” she recalls, “I began to see the differences between one piece and another.” And she came to like what she saw. So, it seems, did Sotheby’s. In 1978, von Wallwitz was asked to join the European ceramics department in London.

“I think to the present day, I was the only volunteer or apprentice in a branch office to jump into an expert department in London,” she recalls, still slightly stunned by the thought.

In 1983, she married Gräf von Wallwitz. The count was a banker working in London. In 1984, between the birth of her two sons, Angela von Wallwitz was made head of the department.

“I was the first female Sotheby’s expert with children,” she says. “The lady experts before me paved the way. I am grateful for that.”

She thrived on the work but, with two toddlers, not the life. “The hours were killing me,” she says.

In 1987 she set up as a private dealer and, in 1991, she was invited to be the first dealer in European porcelain at Maastricht.

Today she is based in Munich where she and the family moved in 1997. At that period the previously buoyant market became sluggish as the old generation of collectors died out. It is lively again now.

“The restitution of objects from eastern Germany has brought about a tremendous amount of interest,” von Wallwitz says. Entire collections are coming to the market. And following the opening-up of archives inaccessible for decades, scholars are publishing exciting, new research.

Not only are there new collectors, especially in Italy, France and America, there are new areas of interest. For years, no one showed much interest in porcelain made by Dupaquier in Vienna but now it is being pursued. (In 2003, at Christie’s in London, a Dupaquier mug reached £240,000. Twenty years before it wouldn’t have made a tenth of that.) An American collecting couple are so keen about Dupaquier, they are planning a museum and have commissioned a group of scholars to write a book about it.

“The mystery, the story behind these objects” is what is attracting the new collectors, von Wallwitz believes. If so, they should be captivated by the selling exhibition of early Meissen figures she is taking to Maastricht this year and her catalogue celebrating the 300th birthday of J.J. Kändler, the sculptor who modelled them.

In her biographical essay, von Wallwitz tells the fascinating story of how European rulers in the 18th century raced to learn the recipe for hard paste porcelain, then known only to the Chinese. It was so prized, so avidly collected and expensive, it was called “white gold”. When Saxony’s prince-elector Augustus the Strong won the race, he built a factory at Meissen. Kändler worked for the prince in Dresden, carving decorations for the Zwinger Palace. The prince, impressed by his gifts, sent him to Meissen. There, as if Kändler’s genius had needed the touch of slippery, wet clay to be unleashed, his great work began. To this day, no one has superseded his modelling in hard paste.

“He had the ability to express dynamic and aesthetic feelings,” explains Ulrich Pietsch, director of the Porcelain Gallery in Dresden where a thousand early Meissen pieces are displayed. “He could give a creature life,” Pietsch continues. “It looks very vivid and close to nature but it is also a work of art.” The market concurs. In 2002, a life-sized Kändler turkey sold for more than £800,000 at Christie’s, a record price for European porcelain.

“Meissen and money have always been sisters,” says Pietsch, who is hosting a symposium in October to honour Kändler. August the Strong was ruler of Germany’s richest princely state. In the 19th century, J.P. Morgan was a prodigious collector as were a number of top German bankers in the first half of the 20th century. But you needn’t be rich. The man who collected the 35 fine Kändler figures that von Wallwitz is selling at Maastricht was a state employee with limited funds. He bought carefully and traded up.

Last year, von Wallwitz’s husband died. Her sons are at university. “It is early days,” she says, but “now I will change the business.”

Already she has altered the design of her stand for Maastricht. She will hang 18th century gold frames. In each, there will be a porcelain plate or figure. “When you are bored of that,” she says, “you take them out and put in something new.”

And without doubt, she is framing 21st century possibilities for herself.

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