The charm of Piano Babies

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Most well-decorated Victorian parlors of the late 1800s and early 1900s had pianos draped with shawls. Something decorative was needed to hold those fabrics in place. From that necessity, piano babies were born.

P1020192.JPGPiano babies are figures of babies made of unglazed bisque, mostly produced in Germany. Factories were already established as makers of fine bisque dolls, so it wasn’t difficult for them to expand their market by creating piano babies.

Referring to this 8-inch piece as being an unmarked Heubach, Lynette Gross said, “In the book Heubach Character Dolls and Figurines … there are photographs of various sizes of this mold and the authors indicate some are unmarked.” Gross “has trouble walking by without picking him up.” $595
Photo courtesy of Joan and Lynette Antique Dolls and Accessories

Most antique ones found today are by the German Heubach brothers.

Viewing Lynette Gross and Tricia Brechenridge’s piano babies online is like looking at a nursery of newborn infants. See for yourself. (Gross: http://rubylane.com/shops/joan-lynetteantiquedolls. Brechenridge: www.atlantaantiquegallery.com.) All are special and unique … and you find yourself wanting to pick up each and every one.

Gross isn’t shy admitting her thrill at holding them. “I believe the babies were meant to be touched! I love to pick them up and feel the wonderful modeling.”

Picking these babies up is a good idea for other reasons as well. With the owner’s permission, hold and study them. Get familiar with the feel of smooth antique bisque. Also learn to scrutinize the quality of bisque ware, the molding details of the figures and artist’s ability in hand painting. PB DUTCH GIRL FRONT VIEW.jpgThese skills will enable you to differentiate between the higher quality of the old with that of the newer pieces.

The blue ribbon on this baby’s gown, shows the expertise of Heubach in both molding and painting. Gowns were often open, exposing chubby legs. Notice the sculpted feet.
Photo courtesy of Joan & Lynette Antique Dolls and Accessories

After studying the artist’s handiwork, turn the piano baby over to see the bisque manufacturing holes. Those of older figurines are smaller.

Knowing the difference between antique and newer will be advantageous in evaluating prices. According to Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles, 2008 Price Guide, American companies began importing bisque piano babies from Japan in the 1950s. Since they don’t duplicate early piano babies, they technically aren’t reproductions. number 31 mark.jpgPiano babies made in the 1950s are not as valuable as earlier ones.

Bottom of German piano baby. The black number 31 indicates the mold number.
Photo courtesy of Atlanta Antique Gallery

Breckenridge says her major buyers tend to procure only piano babies and find plenty of variety to whet their collecting appetites. However, Gross finds most of her repeat customers don’t just collect piano babies, but are first and foremost, bisque doll collectors. The piano babies are just another type of doll to enrich their acquisitions.

Regardless of whether these purchases join only other piano babies or a variety of bisque dolls, it is understandable how difficult it would be to stop further ‘adoptions’ once you’ve started acquiring these infants. Both men and women collect piano babies. number one mark.jpgBreckenridge’s top three buyers are men.

This shows the Heubach impressed sunburst mark. It is marked also with the Heubach stamp and "Made in Germany" stamp. This example doesn’t show the red numbers often present, representing the artist who did the hand painting of the piano baby.
Photo courtesy of Atlanta Antique Gallery

Gross and Breckenridge agree that of all the many companies manufacturing bisque during the Victorian period, Heubach is by far the best for quality. The sunburst mark on the bottom indicates a Heubach piano baby. But not all Heubachs have that marking. Some have incised numbers and/or “Germany,” while others are numbered in red paint. Still others aren’t marked at all.

Gross offers this advice to novice collectors, “I have always believed that collectors should buy the best examples they can afford. Buy one great piece that you love rather than five or six that are just OK.”

She also believes new collectors should not be afraid to buy a piece that has well done repair to the tiny toes and fingers. PB 26300 FULL BODY 2.jpg“Sometimes a small repair or slight damage makes the difference between a piece being affordable or not. I have owned several spectacular pieces with a few minor problems. I have often thought I might never come across a perfect example so why not enjoy the one with minor repairs.”

This Dutch girl measures 8 inches and is Heubach. From her bisque “wooden” clogs to the top of her head, minute details demonstrate this German manufacturer’s excellence. $399
Photo courtesy of Atlanta Antique Gallery

During the early 1900s, miniature piano babies were made to sit on children’s toy pianos. Many of these diminutive, 2- to 3-inch bisque figurines that did manage to survive children’s play, were eventually lost. Those remaining, and in good condition, are highly desirable. (Warman’s Antiques and Collectibles shows examples between $35-$75.)

Although Breckenridge hasn’t had miniatures in her shop, she has had a pair on the other end of the size spectrum, a boy and girl, each 2 1/2 feet tall. Thirty inches may not seem large, unless you realize most piano babies seldom are larger than 12-15 inches.

Heubach is known for their pink-tinted bisque. They are also recognized for exquisite detail, both in molding and painting. These rosy-cheeked infants show remarkable facial expressions, whether pouting or smiling. Many have dimples. Often their mouths are parted just enough to reward you with a peek at a couple baby teeth.

Eyes of Heubach dolls are intaglio and by being impressed, are more realistic. Warman’s guide urges new collectors to also study the painting around those blue eyes as a way of discerning authenticity. PB 24980 HEAD SHOT.jpgPainters of older pieces provided much more detail of brushwork.

The intaglio eyes of this Heubach seem so life-like you almost forget they are molded, painted bisque. The baby’s engaging smile reveals two baby teeth, also molded and painted.
Photo courtesy of Joan & Lynette Antique Dolls and Accessories

The Heubach’s incredibly sculpted hair, usually painted blond, is curly or in a top knot. Often wisps appear from under highly detailed bonnets or caps. Their heads are at interesting angles, as if turning to entertain you with antics.

These chubby figurines, once occupying places atop Victorian pianos, continue to enchant with their variety of poses. Some sit upright; others lie on their stomachs or backs. Many are in crawling position, while others kneel. Babies often played with their toes or feet. Some had a leg raised as if their toes would soon wind up in their mouths. There were those with outstretched arms or with arms held above their heads. PB 24980 FULL BODY.jpgTheir tiny hands are so realistic, it is tempting to extend your finger, expecting the infant to grasp it as babies are prone to do.

Some enthusiasts limit themselves to just bisque infants, while others include figurines of young children in their collections. This bisque figure measures 10 1/2 inches. Her dress displays the trim so beautifully molded and painted by these German artists. An exquisite row of white teeth shows as she smiles. A butterfly sits on her knee, although she appears not to notice. $599
Photo courtesy of Atlanta Antique Gallery

Piano babies sometime appear naked, as if just freshly bathed. Others wear sculpted gowns with intricately textured ruffles or trim. Viewed from any direction, their molded clothing appears to fall in folds, as if real cloth.

All this attention to detail is evident in Heubach pieces. These characteristics are less striking in those made by other manufacturers of that period, and are especially lacking in new bisque ware.

Anybody interested in joining a club for piano babies should check out those for doll enthusiasts in general.

YOU SHOULD KNOW!

According to Guides to Fakes and Reproductions, old molds were discovered in a warehouse by Roland Schegel and Susan Bickert. (Most of those found belonged to Weiss, Kushner & Co., a German factory.) In 1998, Schegel and Bickert formed The German Doll Co. and began using these old molds to produce new piano babies.

Since new figurines are made from original molds, they possess the same marks. Although the company applies a blue ink stamp to bases, these are easily removed. Buyers beware…marks aren’t as reliable now as a single test for determining age.

This guide offers a suggestion for discerning differences. “One of the best clues to age is the feel of the surface. Virtually all of the pre-1940 German bisque is very smooth to the touch. The vast majority of new bisque… is much rougher. The difference is quite obvious with a little experience.”

Guides to Fakes and Reproductions will inform piano baby enthusiasts with additional information regarding bisque ware produced by this company… and ways products are being changed once on the market.

The German Doll Co. markets their piano babies as new products. But once in the hands of less-reputable sellers, these new figures are being resold world wide as vintage. Bottom line, whether buying online or in person, get to know dealers you can trust.

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