Risque Bisque: Bawdy bathing beauties

Sharon Hope Weintraub has made a splash in collecting with her books showcasing bisque and china figurines that portray the late Victorian and Edwardian periods shedding of priggish social and sexual mores.

Naughties, Nudies and Bathing Beauties (Hobby House Press, 1993), now out of print, and Bawdy Bisques & Naughty Novelties (Schiffer, 2005) are about as appealing to collectors as the sultry sirens, nymphs, and bathing beauties featured on their information-packed pages.

naughtie bisque figurineA pair of bathing beauties in excellent shape.

Weintraub began to hone her skills as an antique doll expert at the precocious age of 10, when her aunt gave her an antique china doll. Soon after, she was consulting books, purchasing her own all bisque dolls, joining the local doll collectors society, and becoming adept at judging the age and quality of antique dolls. During her college years, Weintraub discovered the German bathing beauties and sea-maidens that are part of the category of antique dolls referred to as “naughties.”

This discovery, coupled with the skyrocketing prices and meteoric demand for the all bisque dolls that had been her collection’s staples, led Weintraub to seek out more of the racy ladies that were then under wraps on the collectibles market.

After uncovering a smattering of facts and accounts of their history, Weintraub admits, “I was fascinated by the wide variety of figurines and the creativity and workmanship that went into their manufacture. I was also intrigued with the way the bathing beauties reflected the loosening of moral, cultural, and sartorial restrictions on women between the 1890s and the 1920s.”

Weintraub was intrigued enough to have amassed more than 430 assorted naughties, including bathing beauties, sea nymphs, and certainly, mermaids. Of all these cherished pieces, Weintraub rates a matronly bathing lady by the German firm of Galluba and Hoffman as the most rare and the most valuable.

“I have a number of the highly sought after double bathing beauty figurines by this company,” she said. “The extremely scarce bathing man by Galluba and Hoffman has escaped my clutches, so far.”

The prolific Galluba and Hoffman firm produced bisque fashion ladies and fetching bathers that are markedly desirable to today’s collectors. Weintraub’s personal favorite firm is A.W. Fr. Kister, which famously fashioned captivating, and very difficult to nab, bathers.

“Kister figurines,” she affirms, “have the same fine bisque and workmanship of those by Galluba, but they are much more realistically modeled and proportioned. The many beautiful nudes and bathing belles by the Goebel firm tend to be more stylized, with less detailed modeling and facial decoration.”

Schafer and Vater made not only bathing beauties but also black-stocking ladies and other risqué figures that are sought after by both bathing beauty and Schafer collectors. The nudes by Hertwig and Company may be undervalued on today’s market.

Weintraub explains: “Hertwig ladies are so finely modeled, they look as if the sculptor somehow shrunk a real woman down to a few inches; and they have the most lifelike expressions. Because Hertwig’s figurines tend to be of pre-colored bisque with cold-painted features, which wore away over time, they are often overlooked by collectors.”

Wondering which naughties cause collectors’ pulses to positively pound? Weintraub confirms what mermaid enthusiasts already know: German mermaids are very hot right now. She cites the sensual sirens made by Goebel as the most coveted, but Hertwig, Limbach, Sitzendorf, and Weiss, Kühnert, and Company produced many alluring finny females.

Why are the figures of marine maids about as hard to snag as the flesh and scale nymphs of mythology? Weintraub clears up that frustrating point: “If you look at old catalogues from the above manufacturers, you can find pages of bathing beauties, nudes, half dolls, and similar ladies but no more than a handful of mermaids; far fewer mermaids were made at the start. After years of sitting at the bottom of a fish tank, many mermaids were broken or discarded, especially if their features were cold painted and eventually washed away in the water. Furthermore, collectors of mermaid naughties also must contend with collectors of antique aquariums and associated ornaments.”

Antique doll shows, doll dealers, and antique shops are prime hunting grounds for the elusive bisque mermaids and bathing beauties. The Internet offers collectors the advantage of searching worldwide, but shopping from a distance brings with it the risk of inadvertently purchasing pieces that are either damaged or are reproductions.

Of course, naughties are antiques, and a collector should not snub desirable pieces, such as Galluba’s doubles, if they have minor damage like missing fingers or chipped toes. Just be sure the price reflects the damage.

“Remember that Galluba bathing man I’m still trying to nab?” asks Weintraub. “Years ago, I was offered one with several toes missing. I passed him up because I thought the price was too high and I refused to buy damaged pieces. Now I realize how rare he is and still regret not making the purchase.”

If the damaged piece is more commonplace, it may be best to keep searching for a healthier specimen.

“A minor rub in the bisque or a little sliver off the underside of a toe is to be expected and should slightly affect the price,” counsels Weintraub. “A clean break and re-glue on a more desirable piece, especially if it is nearly invisible, will affect the price a bit more. With any more damage, much will depend on the rarity of the figurine.”

Weintraub does not recommend paying hefty sums for a compromised naughty on the grounds that it can be restored.

“Good restorers are very hard to find and very expensive,” she said. “Besides, a restored piece is still a damaged piece.”

The risk of retaining reproduction naughties increased exponentially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unearthing of the molds from old porcelain factories. Even seasoned collectors might now be fooled by the flood of reproductions coming out of Germany and Belgium.
The search for authentic antique bathers is further complicated by modern marriages of old molds.
Weintraub explains: “The old German companies often remade an existing bathing beauty model as a flower frog or powder dish. She might be mounted on any number of seashore-related items, such as shells, fish, or turtles. Frankly, I’m suspicious of these sudden discoveries of bathers incongruously lying on the backs of such unlikely mounts as polar bears and oversized German shepherds.”

Beware of fake marks and back stamps, too.

Weintraub warns: “Many German companies, such as Bruno Schmidt, Carl Schneider Erban, Sitzendorf Porcelain Factory, and Schafer and Vater, incised their marks. Others, such as William Goebel, Hertwig and Company, Gebruder Heubach, and A.W. Fr. Kister, both incised and fired marks. A few, such as Dressel, Kister and Company and Ernst Bohne Söhne, mainly fired marks.”

“It makes me angry that so many honest dealers and collectors are being purposely mislead,” proclaims Weintraub, “but the existence of unscrupulous sellers should not discourage people from collecting. They simply need to educate themselves and exercise caution when shopping for bisque bathers.”

Luckily, connoisseurs of these ribald Victorian and Edwardian belles can consult Sharon Hope Weintraub’s books and Web site and consider themselves rigorously schooled.

Visit Sharon Hope Weintraub’s “Bawdy Bisques and Naughty Novelties: German Bathing Beauties and Their Risqué Kin” at www.bawdybisques.com.

All images courtesy of Sharon Weintraub.

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