Cotsen recently acquired a large collection of 62 bronze Beatrix Potter figurines. The group was assembled over a period of years by Diana R. Tillson, whose remarkable collection of materials on the history of music education and appreciation are part of the Cotsen Children’s Library. The figures are hand painted and range in size from 1.5 to 7 centimeters in three general size categories (8 large, 32 medium, and 22 small). From Benjamin Bunny to Tom Kitten, these bronzes boast an array of familiar and beloved Beatrix Potter characters.
Bronze figurines, Potter-related and otherwise, are often found on Ebay and in auction catalogs, in gift shops and collectibles magazines. In all these various places these collectibles are almost ubiquitously referred to as “Vienna bronzes”, usually “cold painted”: an Art Deco technique in which the metal is first chemically treated then painted and then covered in a fixative. Many larger bronzes are stamped with a maker’s signature. The most familiar in the market is the cartouche of the Viennese manufacturer Franz Bergmann which often appears, unpalindromatically, as NAMGREB (with the last N dropped). But our Potter figurines, and other bronzes of similar size, are too small to bear any maker’s mark. Although these tiny figurines claim a Viennese origin, grasping at associations with those larger and verifiable pieces and with that Austrian city of art and culture, their place of manufacture is not actually noted on the objects themselves.
So while doing research for this blog post I discovered a very strange thing: namely, that the manufacturer and date of these adored collectibles is almost impossible to ascertain!
As has already been mentioned, whenever these objects appear for sale on the web or in trade catalogs, they usually don’t mention a manufacturer. Even in one very famous collection of “Vienna Bronze” Potter figurines, that of Doris Frohnsdorff (featured in the April 16th, 1997 Christie’s auction catalog of her sizable and one-of-a-kind Beatrix Potter collection), the manufacturer is not mentioned. This collection, now in the possession of the rare book dealer David Brass, was reviewed by Greta Schuster, a knowledgeable Potter collector. Of the Frohnsdorff collection (and Vienna Bronzes in general) she said “The Vienna Bronzes are a minefield, from what I can see in your pictures you have a very good selection of old ones (with whiskers), approx. 1913 – 1933… What you have to look out for are ones that were made yesterday and made to look worn and old; yes there are fake Vienna Bronzes.”
To the best of our knowledge and ability we can cautiously conclude that our collection is authentic. Our miniatures are probably contemporaneous with the Frohnsdorff collection, resembling similar quality and condition (our whiskers are intact too!). Although we can claim that our bronzes were probably made in the period between wars, we still don’t know by whom. From what I’ve been able to uncover, this isn’t an problem particular to bronzes. All kinds of collectibles (lead soldiers, pewter figures, porcelain dolls, crystal statuettes, etc.) are listed online, in hobby magazines, and trade catalogs without ever indicating a manufacturer.
Nevertheless, it seems that there are only two companies which could be responsible for the creation of authentic Vienna Bronze Beatrix Potter figurines in the early 20th Century: Franz Bergmann (sold to Karl Fuhrmann & Co. in 1960) and Fritz Bermann; firms with misleadingly similar names that were both started in or around Vienna ca. 1850. On the history page of Bermann’s website, the firm indicates that they fixed a licensing agreement with Warne (the late Potter’s publisher) to produce figurines from Potter’s stories only very recently, in 1984. So we might ostensibly count them out and conclude that only Bergmann could have made our little figurines. Yet both firms have been advertised as the manufacturer of antique Beatrix Potter pieces (though they are, of course, easy to mix up).
It still remains unclear, however, if Potter authorized any Vienna Bronzes during her lifetime. So it is always possible that these miniatures were made by different firms than the ones mentioned but are simply untraceable. We might never get a clear answer regarding the origin of Potter bronzes from this period or our Potter bronzes in particular. If we can conclude that our figurines are not piracies (if indeed they all even came from the same place), then they were most likely made by Bergmann. But given the muddled past and current market, it might be impossible to say for sure. At the very least, we are pleased to have received a charming collection of Vienna Bronze Beatrix Potter figurines that were carefully cast, painstakingly painted, and lovingly cared for.
Additional links and sources:
Visit Cotsen’s virtual exhibition about Beatrix Potter