Figurines are small statuettes depicting human and animal figures. They are traditionally made of ceramic, metal, glass, wood and plastic, and can be realistic or iconic in design.
Figurines do not have any moving parts and are produced purely for ornamental and collecting purposes, in contrast to dolls and action figures which are generally produced as toys.
The earliest figurines were human models, often in the form of small female figures known as ‘venus figurines’ thought to signify fertility.
The most famous of these is the Venus of Willendorf, an 11 cm high limestone statuette of a female figure, discovered in Austria in 1908 and estimated to have been made between 22,000 and 21,000 BCE.
Ancient cultures created figurines for a variety of purposes. Many were made as burial offerings or used in religious ceremonies, whilst others were simple children’s toys.
Origin of modern day figurines
However the history of today’s modern collectible figurines begins much later, in Germany at the beginning of the 18th century.
The Chinese had developed the process of creating porcelain long before it spread to Europe, and by the seventeenth century oriental porcelain had become a valuable export commodity in trade with China and Japan. During this period porcelain from China and Japan was highly sought-after by Europe’s wealthy, and it came to represent importance, and refined taste.
This was aided by the fact that all attempts to replicate porcelain in the west had failed, and the fact the technique was a secret made it all the more alluring.
In 1708 the German inventors Johann Friedrich Böttger and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus perfected the porcelain process for themselves (although Tschirnhaus died a week before the announcement and the discovery was credited solely to Böttger). In 1709 the first factory was founded in Meissen, Germany, and production began in 1710.
By the 1720s the factory had begun to produce figurines, many designed by Johann Joachim Kaendler who became the most famous of Meissen’s sculptors. Under his direction Meissen produced the series of small figurines, often depicting scenes of gallantry. His menagerie of large-scale animals, left in the white, are some of the high points of European porcelain manufacture. His work resulted in the production of exquisite figurines in the rococo style that influenced porcelain making in all of Europe.
Supported by assistants like Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Peter Reinecke, he worked until his death in 1775.
During this period the secret of porcelain-making was spread all over Europe through wars, trade and industrial espionage. Many major European courts started their own porcelain factories to compete with the celebrated Meissen pieces, and famous sculptors of the period engaged in the design of figurines.
Notable manufacturers during this period include the French company Sèvres, and the factories at Höchst and Ludwigsburg.
By 1780 there were more than 30 factories producing figurines and porcelain across Europe.
The Industrial Revolution changed both the mode of production and the marketplace. The 19th century saw the rise of the middle classes and an entire new market for decorative figurines was born.
During this period over 1000 further factories were set up across Europe, mass production was instituted in many factories and artistic quality was relegated behind the concerns of cost and quantity. The period also saw a number of smaller factories begin to manufacture fakes of earlier pieces from the notable factories.
One of the most important companies of the 19th century was Royal Doulton, formed originally in 1853 to create decorative stoneware. In 1871 Henry Doulton (the son of founder John Doulton) set up a studio at the Lambeth pottery, began to offer work to students from the nearby Lambeth School of Art and went on to produce some of the most celebrated figurines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The early 20th century also saw another set of famous figurines appear; in 1935 the first Hummel figurines were produced by the partnership of German porcelain factory W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik and the Franciscan nun Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel. The figurines were based on her drawing of convent children, and became instantly successful. Today Hummel figurines are still produced and are some of the most popular on the collectibles market.
In 1953 the Spanish porcelain company Lladro was founded by three brothers, Juan, José and Vicente Lladró, in the village of Almácera near Valencia. By 1956 they had begun to produce the figurines for which they are now most famous, and which they continue to produce today.
Examples of collectible figurines
King Augustus the Strong, who had a hand in establishing the Meissen porcelain factory, envisaged a vast menagerie of miniature porcelain animals and birds, to popular his porcelain palace, and so Meissen craftsmen worked tirelessly to produce these figurines between 1727 and 1733. This practice made Meissen renowned for its finely crafted figurines. They continued to produce them over the last few centuries and to this day. Some popular examples are Meissen child figurines, Meissen Art Nouveau figurines, Meissen Monkey Band figurines and Meissen Gallant Orchestra figurines.
Royal Doulton figurines
Royal Doulton have been manufacturing figurines since their earliest days. Almost every animal, historical or literary figure, celebrity, theme and period has been represented by Royal Doulton at one time or another. Some figurines can fetch several thousand at auction.
Check out our list of types of collectible figurines for more examples.
Guide to Collecting
Figurines are a highly popular form of collectible, due to the huge variety of styles and designs in which they are produced. There are many types for collectors to choose from, from all over the world and throughout the centuries. This diverse collecting category offers pieces to suit all budgets and tastes, from antique examples to mass produced novelty items.
Due to the extent of figurines available, most collectors will choose a smaller focus for their collection. Some collectors choose to focus solely on one manufacturer of figurines. Others focus their collection by subject: soldiers, pairs of lovers, dogs, elephants, clowns, Christmas themed, classical, religious, political, famous figures, characters from fiction such as Beatrix Potter figurines etc. Collectors might also narrow down their selection by focusing on one period, such as the Victorian era or Art Deco design. Novelty figurines, such as those produced by the Disney company, also having a following.
Some figurines have been created specifically with collectors in mind, produced in limited runs or in a specialist group that provides collectors with an incentive to find every model in that series.
Figurines will generally bear a mark signifying their manufacturer. However, some produced prior to the 1800s will not bear a mark, and will thus be harder to identify.
Figurines can be found at flea markets, car boot sales and yard sales, in thrift stores, charity shops, on eBay, and at auction. Depending on their rarity, condition, and desirability, they can be found for pennies, or sell for hundreds of thousands.
Most people collect figurines, not for financial gain, but as they admire the craftsmanship that went into their manufacture, or they have a penchant for the theme or subject that the figurine represents.
There is a wide collecting community for figurines, and many guide books and references that would make an ideal starting point for a new collector educating themselves about the field.
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