The make-or-break world of plate collecting

You don't put sunnyside-ups or salami sandwiches on them, that's for sure. Collector's plates are strictly for show - art objects created to reap ``ohhhs'' and ``ahhhs,'' not suppers and snacks. Collecting plates of limited editions isn't just a hobby. It's a business and a mania, with prices ranging from sawbucks to thousands. Take the ``Gone With the Wind'' series manufactured by the Edwin M. Knowles firm of Newell, W.Va. The limited-edition plate that pictures Scarlett O'Hara sold for $21.50 back in 1978 when first issued. Now this plate commands $275 or better.

Estimates put the number of plate collectors in the world today at 9 million - with 6.7 million of these in the United States.

When a limited-edition plate is first issued, avid collectors and dealers check it out, taking note of artistry, quality, and the manufacturer's reputation. If the plate is a paragon, they buy. And here's the hook: Only a certain number are made. So when the last plate rolls out of the factory, the trading fun starts on the secondary market, with supply and demand dictating a plate's cost. Good-sellers inch steadily upward in price or sometimes skyrocket, while the not-so-hot items limp along at issue price. A ceramic company's constant challenge is to ferret out sure-selling designs and scenes from artists, and to know just how many plates to produce. Too many glut the market; too few, and they'll slip by unnoticed.

Let's say a collector gets a yen for the ``Little Match Girl'' plate put out in 1907 by the Danish porcelain firm of Bing & Grondahl. Where does he find one now? He can haunt antiques shops and check classified ads, of course. But more than likely he'll phone the Bradford Exchange in Niles, a Chicago suburb. It's the world's largest marketplace for the trading of limited-edition collector's plates. Bradford Exchange operates like a stock exchange, with brokers quoting high, low, and current closing prices. But at Bradford, buyers wind up with plates rather than stock certificates.

Before Bradford Exchange passes a plate to the buyer, it checks for chips, cracks, bubbles, and flaws. And the seller hopes it wasn't a closet-cleaner-outer, because the exchange requires that he present the original box, if one was issued, along with documentation.

In 1986, collector's plates worth more than $100 million were traded on the Bradford Exchange, a figure that reflects both first-issue and secondary sales. And since 1982, secondary market activity has soared more than 300 percent.

During the past two years, porcelain centers in Taiwan, Switzerland, and Germany - never before represented in the collector's plate market - entered the Bradford listings. And recently, the exchange brought one of the new artists, Ursula Band of East Germany, to the Niles center for a visit. Her ``Songbirds of Europe'' set was produced by Alt Tirschenreuth, a 150-year-old porcelain firm in West Germany. This series marked Tirschenreuth's first venture into limited-edition plates.

Free-lancing from her home near Meissen, Mrs. Band paints in a combination of media (watercolor, tempera, and gouache) on a single painting. At the Tirschenreuth porcelain house, her art work is transformed into a decal. This is then applied to the porcelain plate and kiln-fired. Band's bird plates, tagged in the $20 range, are still being issued, but once the series closes, the price of each plate will fluctuate at its own rate.

Supposedly, this ``limited edition'' game started back in 1895 when Harald Bing, director of Denmark's Bing & Grondahl, made a shattering decision. He told workers to destroy the mold for that year's Christmas plate. Titled ``Behind the Frozen Window,'' the plate of cobalt blue and white depicts a city's spires seen through a frosted windowpane. Nobody knows how many were made, but it's estimated that 400 still exist today. Back then, it sold for the equivalent of 50 cents. Today, it sells for $3,200 or more.

Browswers can see this plate, plus a panorama of others, at the Bradford Exchange museum, in the same Niles building. This exhibition of limited editions - the world's largest permanent collection - features more than 1,300 plates of porcelain, china, crystal, and wood produced by some 60 makers from 12 countries. Just name a subject and you're sure to find a matching plate. The range goes from biblical characters to clowns, from fairy tales to opera, little girls, mothers, lovers, and scenes around the seasons.

The history and terminology of ceramics

To China goes credit for first producing true or ``hard paste'' porcelain. It happened around the 7th century, when artisans drew on kaolin clay deposits near the town of Ching-te Chen. Kaolin is a key ingredient for this white, translucent porcelain.

In the 14th century the porcelain from China made its way westward along trade routes to Europe's rich and royal. The artisans of Europe tried to duplicate the Chinese formula and process, but to no avail. Renaissance craftsmen only managed to create an inferior product called ``soft paste'' porcelain.

Finally the breakthrough came in 1708. Using kaolin clay discovered near Meissen, Germany, potter Johann Friedrich Bottger succeeded in pushing kiln temperatures to the hottest of hot. Out came the prize porcelain. Terms in the trade:

Ceramic - A general term applied to plates and vessels made from clay and hardened by firing.

Glaze - The hard, glossy coating that makes ceramic ware more decorative and durable. Glaze is applied by dipping, spraying, or painting after the ware's first firing. When heated to its vitrification point, the glaze fuses with the ceramic ware.

Vitrification - When heated between 1250 C. and 1450 C., clay fuses to form a glassy (vitreous), nonporous substance.

China - Although the terms china and porcelain are often used interchangeably, they're not the same. Their formulas are different, and they're fired at different temperatures.

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