Ceramic sprats to catch a silver mackerel: The desire for sets of matching pieces has made a big business out of 'limited edition' china figurines and plates. John Windsor examines their value

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The Independent Online
WHEN you open the colour supplements this weekend, you might see full-page advertisements for 'limited edition' china figurines and plates. Do you see them as something pretty to stand on the mantelpiece, as a potential investment - or over-priced junk? 'Limited editions' are big business. A plate with a soppy robin, the edition limited by time, not number, might sell 500,000. At pounds 10 each, that is pounds 5m for a single edition.

Lorraine Boden, a china and glass buyer, knows the trade from the inside. Her advice to those hoping to make an investment is clear: 'Just as estate agents say 'location, location, location', in this field it's 'name, name, name'.'

The first step is to read the name in the advertisement. Royal Doulton is likely to hold its value (unless the product is totally naff, like thimbles). The company owns other big names: Royal Crown Derby, Royal Albert and Royal Minton. Its mail-order company is Lawleys by Post.

But value is only theoretical. The second-hand market in limited-edition ceramics is not very active. Once you have bought a crinoline lady figurine for pounds 170, who will take it off your hands, even at a fraction of the price? Mrs Boden had to advise an American client with a collection of Royal Worcester horses, bought for as much as pounds 3,000 each, that they would probably fetch only 10 per cent of their retail price at a London auction.

On the other hand, the value of granny's couple of dozen Royal Crown Derby figures, collected over 15 years, might keep pace with inflation in a saleroom in a retirement resort. But only because Royal Crown Derby has a loyal following of collectors with an eye for quality.

Second-hand prices of Royal Worcester limited editions have plummeted to about a quarter of their 1985- 87 values. The falling-off in the Arab and American markets is partly to blame. It was also in the late Eighties that the home market for mail-order limited-edition ceramics began to saturate. But Royal Worcester is still confident of selling this year's edition of 75 rearing Arab stallions with rider, priced at pounds 5,995 each.

As the mail-order competition has hotted up, not all well-known names have continued to use expensive traditional skills such as multiple firings. They have been up against competition from cheaper figurines made from resin, not clay. These do not need to be fired and can retain greater detail than clay - every feather of a bird can be made to stand out.

Traditional glazing and firing tend to obliterate detail, hence the generations-old technique of 'dipping' - sticking on fine features such as fingers with 'dip' - molten clay. Mrs Boden advises readers of mail-order advertisements to learn to distinguish poor ceramic figurines with fingers carelessly moulded into the body from those with fingers added by skilled 'dippers'. (Her uncle is still a dipper.) As for those pounds 5,995 Royal Worcester stallions, they must be propped in the kiln by expert kiln masters. No cutting corners there.

As the quality of clay products has diminished, controversy has arisen about 'hand painting'. It can mean entirely hand-painted or it can mean a daub with a brush over a drop-on transfer that may already be machine- coloured. The accepted retail price for mail-order, transfer-only plates is about pounds 10, and for entirely hand- painted, pounds 50. The large grey area in between does not inspire confidence.

Quality is not always uppermost in the buyer's mind. Just as potent is the desire to have a set of matching pieces. Mrs Boden said: 'It's like being addicted. They can't resist buying yet another piece.' The psychology of mail-order limited editions, she explains, lies in the use by manufacturers of a sprat to catch a mackerel.

A manufacturer will offer a set of four floral plates of the seasons. The punter sends money with order for the first (giving the maker capital with which to start production) and signs up for the rest. The maker now has a customer mailing list. He or she advertises another floral ceramic in the same series - an 8in plate, say - simultaneously mailing the first customers, who will want the plate for the sake of completeness. Then follows a 10in plate, a trinket box and so on - all irresistible parts of the same 'collection'.

The biggest customer bases come from products with the widest sentimental appeal. A figure of a child carrying a pet appeals as a gift to parents and grandparents alike. No wonder some call this the 'fancy' market.

For both addicts and those trying to kick the habit, the Bradford Exchange offers a global brokerage service (sellers' premium 20 per cent) for second-hand mail-order plates - including its own products. Its current quarterly quotation of prices lists 209 'advances', 103 'declines' and 1,281 'unchanged'. Collectors wanting to buy or sell sometimes need to be patient while awaiting a match. Last year the Exchange advertised a spectacular leap in value of 'Oliver's Birthday', one of its Uncle Tad's Cats series, from pounds 37.50 in 1979 to pounds 165 in 1992. The same advertisement offered a plate with a Victorian kitten painting at the retail price of pounds 17.95.

One last warning. Work out the cost of completing a set before you buy the first item. Does it sound like value for money - and are you prepared to buy hitherto unannounced pieces in the same 'collection'?

Bradford Exchange, Freepost (HA 1946), Stoke-on-Trent ST4 4BR.

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