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Collecting Limoges Porcelain

by Heather Matthews

Limoges is a small town in France, and it has been renowned, since the eighteenth century, for its exquisite porcelain, created from the white clay known as Kaolin. Until Limoges began producing fine porcelain with the town's own white clay, it was only available in China, where its processing method was kept secret from outsiders.

Fine porcelain from Limoges is highly prized for its milky luster, its relative strength, and its delicate, hand painted design. The first French manufacturer of fine porcelain was Sevres, who imported the Chinese white clay, along with its closely guarded secrets of manufacture, to produce their designs.

Once fine Kaolin clay was found in the town of Limoges, several firms set up shop and began producing the pristine porcelain that made the town famous. The aristocracy of France were the main buyers of Limoges porcelain, which they used for everyday purposes, such as plates, bowls, and other dishes for the table, as well as flower vases, and even chamber pots. Once the demand for fine porcelain began to grow in Limoges, artists congregated in the town, putting their own, fine touches on the shining, white material, and creating pieces of singular artistry. Handpainted Limoges porcelain has a refined look, and often features such romantic subject matter as figures in fine French dress, beautifully rendered floral motifs, and delicate borders, often gilded.

Limoges porcelain was initially most common in the production of snuff boxes: in this time period, most well-off members of the various European courts would take snuff from little boxes, which were known as tabatieres. Often, Limoges snuff boxes were cast in original shapes, and they could depict any sort of fashionable subject matter. Snuff boxes could be found in the shape of French court shoes, or lap dogs, or anything else that might be requested by a member of the aristocracy. Limoges snuff boxes were a status symbol in 18th century France, and they remained popular until the pipe was invented, rendering snuff obsolete. To this day, snuff boxes created and decorated in the town of Limoges are very valuable collectibles.

Another reason why original Limoges snuff boxes are so prized by collectors is because of their rarity: the French Revolution saw many examples of fine Limoges craftsmanship destroyed by the common people, as a show of rebellion and anger: what still remains today is very valuable, and fetches extremely high prices at auctions.

As time has passed, artisans have sought to recreate the beauty of the finest Limoges designs in modern times. They have created a wealth of fine reproductions, but none have the value and rarity of the original pieces. It is important for any collector of Limoges porcelain to understand the difference between the original, eighteenth-century designs, and subsequent reproductions. While reproductions may be valuable in their own right, they must be held aside from the more highly prized and authentic porcelain of the Pre-Revolutionary period.

Today, the Limoges tradition is still carried on, as artists seek to recreate the beauty of the past with new figurines, dishes, and porcelain boxes. The decorative style used by artists today is similar to the Romantic French style employed in the original pieces. In some cases, artists have access to original moulds, from long ago, which they use to create shapes that are classical and pleasing to the eye. Currently, there are as many as 36 firms producing fine Limoges porcelain boxes, since the items remain popular with tourists and collectors alike.

If you have your eye on a special porcelain box or other collectible, there are some things you can look for to be sure your piece is an authentic product of the town of Limoges. For example, you can look at the bottom of the piece for the manufacturer's stamp, as well as numbers that indicate whether or not your piece is part of a limited edition. Of course, the rarity of your piece will increase its value: some Limoge boxes have a limited run of manufacture, which will make them more desirable than pieces that are mass-produced.

There are plenty of fakes out there, so be wary, and look for all the indicators of the genuine article. If your box or piece has hinges, you must check to see if they are expertly fastened to the design. You must also take care to inspect the hand painted designs carefully: true craftsmen will have years of training under their belts, before they are allowed to work on pieces that will be available for sale. You will soon be able to see the differences between a true collectors item, and something that is cheaply produced to fool collectors. There are many places on the Web, where they claim to sell fine Limoges porcelain for a very low price: do not be fooled. If the price seems to good to be true, you are likely bidding on, or buying, a very cheap reproduction: such a piece will never gain value, or be a good investment.

Every porcelain manufacturer now operating in the little town of Limoges is entitled to stamp their design with the word, Limoges: this is not an indicator, in and of itself, of the piece's value as a collectible. While it is important that the piece have this stamp, to prove it was made in Limoges itself, there are poorly crafted items with this stamp available for sale in the marketplace. More important, is the artistry of the painter, and the rarity and purity of the piece and its design. Every facet of your Limoge piece must be painstakingly crafted to the very highest standards.

Your piece should have a stamp that has says Limoges France, but all the different companies have different ways of stamping their pieces, so there is not one type of stamp to look for. Do some research before you buy, as the most common manufacturer's stamps are available for viewing on the Internet.

If you find a lovely piece, that is clearly created with painstaking attention to detail, and has an authentic stamp from Limoges, from a well-known company, you will be able to enjoy the tradition and history of Limoges porcelain in your own home. These pieces can be valuable, but, more than that, they can be lovely beyond words, full of the romantic spirit of another time.

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