KPM Plaques: As Konigliche Porzellan reclaims post-crash highs, a fresh wave of fakes hurts collectors

Summary This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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KPM plaques are highly-glazed, enamel paintings on porcelain bases that were produced by Konigliche Porzellan Manufaktur (K.P.M.), the King’s Porcelain Factory, in Berlin between 1880 and 1901. Unlike canvas paintings that fade with time, these painted plaques retain their rich, vibrant colors and soft, glowing skin tones indefinitely.

KPM porcelain plaque maidenThis KPM plaque depicting a beautiful maiden with a ‘basket of blessings’ measures 12 inches high by 10 inches wide and is valued at around $20,000. Photo courtesy of Some-of-my-favorite-things.com

Their secret, reveals Afshine Emrani, dealer and appraiser at Some of My Favorite Things, is KPM’s highly superior, smooth, hard paste porcelain, which could be fired at very high temperatures.

“The magic of a KPM plaque,” he adds,“ is that it will look as crisp and beautiful 100 years from now as it does today. If two paintings on porcelain are identical, today’s collectors will pay significantly more for the one produced on fine KPM porcelain.” Even when they were introduced, these plaques proved highly collectible, with art lovers, collectors, tourists, and the wealthy acquiring them for extravagant sums.
The KPM company rarely marketed painted porcelain plaques themselves, however. Instead, it usually supplied white, undecorated ones to independent artists who specialized in this genre.

Not all artists signed their KPM paintings, however. No matter. Experienced collectors care far more for their colors, the quality of their artwork, and the complexity of their subject matter.

While most KPM plaques were copies of famous paintings, some, commissioned by wealthy Americans and Europeans in the 1920s, bear images of actual people in contemporary clothing. Although these were hand-painted, most, since they were copied from photographs, seem flat. Anther tell-tale feature is their wide background margins. These least collectible of KPM plaques command between $500 and $1500 each, depending on the attractiveness of their subjects.

KPM plaqueThis framed KPM plaque titled “Othello Pleading Before the Doge” was made in Berlin, Germany, circa 1900. It is signed “C. Hen” in the lower right, which is unusual since most KPM art was not signed. The plaque depicts Othello pleading before the doge (aka the chief magistrate of Venice or Genoa) and Brabantio, Desdemona at his side, member of the Senate looking on. It sold for $11,950 during a September 2011 Heritage Auction sale. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions

Gilded, hand-painted plaques featuring Middle Eastern or female Gypsy subjects and bearing round red MADE IN GERMANY stamps , were produced just before and after World War One for export. They command between $500 and $2000 each. Plaques portraying religious subjects, like the Virgin Mary or the Flight into Egypt, though they may command higher prices, are also less popular.

KPM plaque Le BraunThis stunning rectangular porcelain plaque with hand-painted decoration depicts a self-portrait of the artist Louise-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun after the original painting. Presented in a gilt frame measuring 11 1/2 inches by 9 1/2 inches, the circa 1900 plaque (7 inches by 5 1/8 inches) is marked with the KPM scepter mark. It was sold by Heritage Auctions on Feb. 7, 2012 for $3,500. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions

Popular scenes of hunters, merrymakers, musicians, and the like, because they have been reproduced time and again, though they are highly detailed, generally fetch well under $10,000 apiece. Rarer, more elaborate scenes, however, like “The Dance Lesson” and “Turkish Card Players” may be worth many times more.

Highly stylized portraits copied from famous paintings–especially those of attractive children or décolleté women– allowed art lovers to own their own “masterpieces.” These are currently worth between $2000 and $20,000 each. Romanticized portrayals of cupids and women in the nude, the most desirable KPMs subjects of all, currently sell for up to $40,000 each. Portraits of men, it must be noted, are not only less popular, but also less expensive.

Size also matters. A 4 by 6 inch KPM plaque, whose subject has been repeatedly reproduced, may sell for a few thousand dollars. Larger ones, that portray the same subject, will fetch proportionately more. When they reach 10 inches, plaques rise dramatically in price. A “Sistine Madonna” KPM plaque, after the original work by Rafael and measuring 10 by 7 ½ inches might cost $4,200. One featuring the identical subject, and measuring 15 by 11, might cost $7,800. A larger plaque, measuring 22 by 16, might command twice that price.

The largest KPM plaques, those measuring 22 by 26 inches for example, often burst during production. “Imagine an artist painstakingly painting an entire scene then, while firing his plaque in a kiln, having it break,” observes Emrani. Although no formula exists for determining prices of those that have survived, he reveals that each may sell for as much as $250,000. Rare plaques like these are often found in museums.

KPM plaque tambourine dancerRare Middle Eastern Tambourine dancer, 8 inches by 10 inches, $14,000. Photo courtesy of Some-of-my-favorite-things.com Biblical Scene, 10 inches by 8 inches, $8,000. Photo courtesy Antiqforum.com

The condition of a KPM plaque also affects its price. Most, since they were highly glazed and customarily wall-hanged instead of handled, have survived in perfect condition. Thus those that have sustained even minor damage, like scratches, cracks, or chips, fetch considerably lower prices. Those suffering major damage are worthless.

KPMs painted plaques arouse so much interest and command such high prices that, overt the last couple of years, unscrupulous dealers have entered the market. Indeed, reveals dealer Balazs Benedek, KPM plaques are “The mother of all fakes. About 90 percent of KPM plaques are mid to late 20th century reproductions. And about 70 percent are not hand painted. Yet people bid thousands of dollars for them. Why?”

Collectors should be aware that genuine KPM paintings always boast rich, shiny, glazes which preserve their colors, and though subject matter may vary, typically feature nude scenes, indoor portraits of women, or group gatherings in lush settings. Anything wildly different should raise suspicion.

Genuine KPMs , on their backs or edges, feature small icons of scepters deeply set in the porcelain, over the letters KPM These marks are sometimes accompanied by an “H” or some other letter, which may indicate their production date or size. Some are imprinted with the size of these plaque as well, which facilitated sorting or shipping. Shallow or crooked imprints may reveal a fake.

KPM plaque dance masterRare, large Dance Master measuring 19 inches by 11 inches, $110,000. Photo courtesy of Some-of-my-favorite-things.com

One type of imitation plaque is produced somewhere in Asia. Although they are indeed marked with a scepter above the letters KPM, these marks differ from genuine ones used by KPM in the second half of the 19th century. The poor quality of their art work also reveals their origins.

Another type of imitation plaque, reveal experts at Antiqforum.com, is produced “ by legitimate porcelain manufacturers, both old and new, such as Dresden, Limoges, or Hutschenreuther where the original mark or stamp has been removed and a fake KPM mark has been applied.” If this was done by a good restorer, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. While the poor quality of the painting is often a give-away, some of these plaques are very well painted, especially the old ones. Sometimes even a very careful buyer gets fooled. On the other hand,” they admit,” many collectors simply don’t care whether the plaque is marked KPM or not, as long as it’s antique and the painting is good.”

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov.” She lives in Israel.

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