Masterpieces from the white room: In the Meissen factory's dash for cash, the key to a treasure trove of unique pieces has been lost, writes John Windsor

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TWENTY years ago, Victor Zelli sent his manageress, Penelope Higham, to the legendary Meissen porcelain factory in East Germany to buy stock for his London shop. Before she left, he said: 'Ask to see 'the white room'.'

Mrs Higham followed his instructions, but loyal Meissen staff denied the existence of the room. She persisted. Eventually, an eight-inch iron key was produced and she was led to an attic reached by stone steps. The door was unlocked.

Beneath the rafters of the dark and dusty 'white room' were wooden planks on metal frames bearing hundreds of Meissen figures still 'in the white' - that is, unpainted. Some dated back generations. All were unique models, either survivors of the five or so extra casts made to allow for breakage through the multitude of processes, or cancelled orders.

In that room, which Mr Zelli had discovered on a previous visit, lay the secret of his unrivalled reputation as a dealer in Meissen. German collectors who visited his shop marvelled at the hitherto unseen figures of animals, nymphs and shepherds, now hand-painted, glazed and marked by Meissen with its crossed swords emblem. They also marvelled at his prices.

Twice a year for 20 years, Mrs Higham bought whatever she fancied from the white room. 'You are the only one who comes in here, Frau High-ham,' the Germans told her. Certainly, a museum curator or two had followed her trail, but she never feared competition from the German ceramics retailers. They were happy with the latest range of tableware.

Her other source of discovery has been old textbooks which identify Meissen figures by their code numbers. (The Meissen archive contains an astonishing 250,000 numbered moulds, and finding the right mould without its code number is a near impossibility: each one consists of a jigsaw of up to 80 pieces.) Of the dozens of figures taken out of the white room by Mrs Higham to be completed, about 50 are rediscoveries. Some are still for sale at Zelli's.

But Mrs Higham's days of plundering the white room may be at an end. Following unification, Meissen has been put on a commercial footing. Although it has opted to remain in state ownership, it is aiming for a turnover this year of more than DM90m, compared with DM50m in 1990. Every mould and white figure capable of being turned into money is likely to have been seized upon. The shelves of the white room are now probably bare.

The recession has reduced the turnover of Zelli's - which Mrs Higham bought from Mr Zelli in 1990 - by half in each of the past two years and her staff has dropped from four to one. Meissen has appointed a London agent and some of the porcelain figures which Mrs Higham ordered years ago from the factory are appearing in smart West End shops.

The only sane thing to do, Mrs Higham decided, was to have a fling. Her celebration of the 40th anniversary of Zelli's includes an exhibition of 18th-century Meissen figures on a musical theme which have been allowed out of the factory for the first time. The curator of the Meissen museum, Dr Hans Sonntag, visited London to lecture on the history of Meissen, the first hard-paste porcelain in the West (invented in 1708 by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger). A Meissen free-hand artist - no guidelines are allowed - spent last week demonstrating what can be achieved after a four- year apprenticeship.

Auction prices for old and new Meissen have been holding up well in a discriminating market where buyers often bid through dealers and keep their valuable collections secret. The top auction price for Meissen was set only last year by Christie's: pounds 220,000 for a snuffbox of 1730, probably presented to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, founder of the original Meissen factory in 1710.

But the British have never succumbed to the passion for Meissen which led Augustus to cram his palaces with it and still inspires German householders to attempt the same. No British ceramics factory can match the 12,000 people who queued half a mile to visit the Meissen museum during Easter week. The reason is largely historical. In 18th-century Germany, clay was considered to be as worthy a medium for artists as canvas. The names of Meissen sculptors and painters, such as Horoldt and Kaendler, are well known to European schoolchildren. Britons feel more at home with paintings, drawings and silverware.

When I visited Mrs Higham at Zelli's she shocked me by gesturing towards her stock and saying, 'All this is unashamedly modern.' I mouthed the dreaded word 'reproduction'. There lies another cultural difference between us and the Germans, she said. 'This age-snobbism is purely English.'

Meissen still produces models of old favourites like Kaendler's monkey band - without the original blemishes. A set of 17 monkey band figures - all 1880 apart from one 18th-century piece - fetched a respectable pounds 5,500, above its pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000 estimate, at Sotheby's this month. (Pieces from an original set of 1753 would fetch pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 each at auction).

The time it takes to make a Meissen figure is guarantee against the jibe of 'reproduction' (though some would-be customers do not stay in the shop long enough to hear Mrs Higham explain). A piece may need up to 16 firings and reach the customer more than a decade after it was ordered. A 14 1/2 -inch vase in Kakiemon style after Horoldt, hand-painted like all Meissen ware, bore a tag marked '1,300 hours' when she spotted it at the factory, four years after she had ordered it. She has priced it at pounds 2,700.

A 13 1/2 -inch blue Chinese vase with three painted panels of birds and foliage, after a model of the mid-18th century, the product of up to 14 firings, is priced at pounds 8,600. A 16-inch floral-decorated vase in neo-classical style in seven colours after a 1780 Chinese original, which took four years, is pounds 1,282.

All ordered by customers, I presumed. 'No,' she said. 'For stock.' After all, what customer would wait years for an order?

There are still some white room finds to be sold. A pair of six-inch long quails after Kaendler's models are pounds 445 each and two tiny neo-classical doves, two inches long, are pounds 150 each. When on the shelf in the white room, each bore a tag revealing which of the 250,000 moulds it had come from. Mrs Higham is keeping the numbers to herself.

Exhibition of early Meissen musician figures at Zelli's, 30a Dover Street, London W1

(071-493 0203) until 30 October, 9.30am-6pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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