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Mar 01, 2008
Crockery Hunter - Forbes

 One morning last November, in a special private skybox overlooking Sotheby’s
 New York main auction gallery, Richard Baron Cohen, 50, was growing
 despondent. “This is a collector’s worst nightmare,” he said.






He had thought he was the only one with a serious interest in the small
round table commissioned by Napoleon that was on the block, but had still

flown back from a porcelain collecting trip to Vienna to bid in person.

“I like to read the energy for myself to see what’s going on,” Cohen said.

Yet here, in his private bidding room, which Sotheby’s sets up for its high

rollers, the energy was fading faster than the 1812 retreat from Moscow. The 

table, which featured delicate paintings of nine French châteaux on the

three-foot-diameter porcelain top, was fetching unexpected attention.

Most bidders had dropped out before the table hit the low end of the

$800,000 to $1.2 million estimate, but someone on the floor below

was bidding it to an unprecedented level.


When the bidding reached $5 million, Cohen knew it was pointless to
continue. The table went for $6.2 million--the highest price ever paid for a
single piece of porcelain. Within hours, having developed a temperature of
103 degrees, Cohen jumped on a flight back to Austria to drown his sorrow in
other acquisitions.
 
“I’ve never been able to get it across to people,” Cohen said later from his
Empire-style desk in a room overlooking Long Island Sound.  “Porcelain has no
body heat, but for me it radiates. It combines so many things for me, that
finding the right piece is almost a religious experience when it happens.”


Sprawled across the desk, and seemingly every surface in his giant Long
Island home, is one of the world’s largest private porcelain collections, a
mind-bogglingly colorful kaleidoscope of some 3,000 delicate vases, plates
and accoutrements, most with paintings of royal palaces and personages so
bright and perfectly preserved under the glaze that you are reminded that
porcelain painting was the digitization of its time.


If you thought porcelain collecting was something little old ladies with
nice tea sets did, think again. It has become a big business, especially 

among men with a yen for history. "

 

There are more men in this market than women,” said Christina

Prescott-Walker, senior VP and director of European Ceramics at Sotheby’s.

“Values have been steadily increasing for over ten years. You have to

remember that these ceramics aren’t just beautiful objects. They have strong historical

ties. Porcelain was what royalty and other powerful people gave each other.”

 

Once upon a time, only the Chinese knew how to make “the white gold,” and
they managed to keep its manufacture a closely guarded secret up until the
early 18th century, when European scientists caught on. Local production in
rival European states blossomed as royal courts strove to have the best
workshops--not least because porcelain became the currency of prestige and
power between rulers.

But then came the French Revolution and social upheaval. By the time
Napoleon renewed royal patronage of the Sèvres factory, porcelain had
entered a new Golden Age, thanks to improved manufacturing technologies

that enhanced  its pliability while allowing for higher-quality gilding and paint

 to be applied to its surfaces. Suddenly Europe’s royal crockery took on fantastical

new forms, the shiny surfaces becoming the perfect medium for miniature painting 

that even now rivals photography for vibrancy of detail and color.


And the fine paintings are what Cohen covets. “Most porcelain collectors
concentrate on porcelain from specific workshops, like Sèvres or Royal
Copenhagen,” said Cohen. “But I collect a period. The neoclassical period,
from the late 1790s to 1830, with its precision painting, is what interests
me.”

Cohen can afford to make the most of his interests. Born into a family
already prosperous through Manhattan real estate development, Cohen

 expanded his fortune by buying Chudnow Manufacturing, a company that

specializes in beverage dispensers. Every time you go to a Dairy

Queen, you are probably indirectly donating to Cohen’s collection.


Although his mother had a few pieces of porcelain when he was growing up,
Cohen knew little of the genre until 1994, when on a trip to London he
wandered into a shop that would change his life.


 “I saw these Viennese porcelain platters that had hyperrealistic
 topographical paintings on them,” recalled Cohen. “I got hooked on the fact
 that the lines and colors that you can achieve in porcelain, particularly in
 the early 1800s, are far more realistic than other painting.”


 His mansion, based on the Petit Trianon Palace in Versailles, is named
 Twinight because of the ethereal pink and blue light that envelops the
 estate between dusk and night. It’s also the name given to Cohen’s porcelain
 collection, highlights of which are now in a traveling exhibit coming to New
 York’s Metropolitan Museum this September.


A random, decidedly non-bull-like ramble through Twinight is an
early-19th-century history lesson wrought in porcelain, from the library
fireplace, a gift from the French court to the English, to the many plaques
and vases featuring Napoleon’s and Wellington’s officers still confronting
each other across the rooms. Indeed, locks of both generals’  hair share a
drawer in Cohen’s dressing room.


A closer look at a pile of dinner settings in a living room reveals a set of
plates used by Lady Emma Hamilton, the femme fatale of Admiral Horatio
Nelson of Trafalgar fame. The set had cost Cohen $300,000. “Only two of
these plates have come to market in the past 40 years,” Cohen said.
If that makes you want to tread more carefully, then the $900,000 he paid
for part of the Service Forestier--a series of highly gilded plates produced
by France’s Sèvres workshop in the 1830s and ‘40s featuring unbelievably
detailed epic views of forests from around the world--might make you swear
off indoor ball-playing.

“Richard’s collection is probably top of its genre,”  said Jody Wilkie, who
runs Christie’s ceramics department. “You’d have to have something truly
extraordinary to be able to add to it.”

Cohen has indeed thought up something truly extraordinary. Three years ago
he commissioned a special 141-piece porcelain set from the Royal

Copenhagen porcelain factory in Denmark. It was the first major private

commission the factory has had in a century, and rivaled the most eccentric standards

set by some of the more inbred royals of yore. “I have loved hippopotami ever since I

was a little kid,” said Cohen. “They are the most dangerous animals [in Africa],they

kill more people than any other animal--and yet they are so placid and

family-oriented. This provided me with the opportunity to combine two great passions.”



A woman arranges porcelain of the so-called 'Hippopotamus Service' before the opening of the exhibition 'Raffinesse & Eleganz' in Berlin July 27, 2007. U.S collector Richard Baron Cohen commissioned the service, which contains more than 150 pieces hand painted from 303 photographs, from the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory in Denmark. He sent a photographer on a year long tour to picture hippos in 101 zoos in 33 countries. The exhibition shows porcelain of the early 19th century collected by Cohen and opens to the public from July 28 until November 4 in the German capital. From Reuters Pictures by REUTERS.

 Sending photographer Sarah Galbraith around the world to photograph hippos
 in 101 zoos in 33 countries, Cohen selected his favorite photos to be
 hand-painted on Royal Copenhagen settings by renowned Danish porcelain
 artist Jorgen Steensen, who was pulled out of semiretirement for the
 commission.


The result is both astonishing and almost surreal, with the lumbering beasts
swimming, nuzzling and gaping large and pink from the delicate lacelike
patterns of Royal Copenhagen’s plates, saucers and bowls. Each hippo’s name,

zoo and city is carefully painted on the back of each piece.


The $500,000 he spent on the set seems like a big price tag for a pile of
modern crockery unlikely ever to be used. Yet the plates have proven to be
particularly popular in the traveling exhibition. Perhaps a future Baron
Cohen will be collecting these pieces with the same reverence the current
one pays to royal treasures of two centuries ago.


Which raises the big question: What should an investment-minded collector be
buying? “Buying what you like is always the best advice,” said Sotheby’s
Christina Prescott-Walker. “Richard bought what he personally loved right
from the outset, and many of his pieces have gone up tremendously in just a
few years. Right now, early-18th-century Meissen is popular because of all
the royal provenance, while Russian porcelain has really taken off because
Russians have a renewed interest in their own heritage.”

But unlike with paintings, you needn’t be an oligarch to buy into the top
shelf of the porcelain market. “This is a very easy market for collectors to
enter,” said Prescott-Walker. “You can buy really good things with
historical links and royal provenances for just $5,000 to $10,000.”

One doesn’t have the feeling Cohen sees his collection as an investment.
Despite claims of being a misanthrope, he’s obviously having fun. A big
fund-raiser for rebuilding a royal palace in the center of Berlin (bombed
during World War II but perfectly preserved in painted miniatures throughout
Twinight) is planned for this spring, with the mansion to be rigged up as a
replica of the schloss. And Cohen travels to speak at exhibitions of his
porcelain. “On the whole, I find that the conversations are more interesting
on the porcelain circuit than the beverage-dispensing circuit,” Cohen noted.
Last year he was feted in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace in honor of his
50th birthday and the opening of an exhibit of his collection. The world’s
top porcelain collectors and experts traveled from as far away as Japan to
attend.


“People who collect are maladjusted. We like to create order,” said Cohen.
“Nothing makes my soul feel better than reuniting pieces in a set that might
have been separated for two centuries.”


But does he ever eat off his treasures? In his kitchen, the cook has set a
table with plain modern dishware. “I can’t stand to eat anything off a
surface that has a painting on it,”  said Cohen.
 
 Refinement and Elegance: Early Nineteenth-Century Royal Porcelain from the
 Twinight Collection, New York, will be shown at New York’s Metropolitan
 Museum of Art, September 9, 2008, to April 19, 2009. The 488-page exhibition
 catalog Published Hirmer Verlag is available for $99.


-Finn-Olaf Jones




   
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