Meissen turtle butter boxes bring $74,000 to Bonhams

A very rare pair of Meissen butter boxes has auctioned for £48,050 ($74,208) in London.

Bonhams' sale of fine European ceramics (June 5) saw the butter boxes sell securely within their £40,000-60,000 ($60,000-91,000) estimate, testament to the rarity of fine, early examples of Meissen porcelain, as well as to the esteem in which the manufactory is held.

Meissen turtle auction
Fit for a King: a pair of turtle-shaped Meissen butter boxes with domed shells forming the covers

Circa 1727-28, the George Fritzsche-modelled butter boxes were created for Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, whose lifelong love affair with fine bone china is the stuff of legend.

Strong's passion for imported Japanese porcelain led to him locking alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger in a laboratory within his palace ramparts. Tasked with perfecting the formula for bone-white, hard paste porcelain, Bottger toiled, and, eventually, manufactured Europe's very first hard paste porcelain in 1708.

The Meissen porcelain manufactory was founded on this discovery. It produced costly, hand-decorated porcelain items, which soon became the toast of Europe. By the late 18th century no upper-class home was complete without a Meissen figural or Japanese-inspired tea set.

By the time of his death in 1733, Strong had commissioned an expansive menagerie of porcelain animals, birds and figures to people his vast "Japanese Palace" in Dresden.

The present butter boxes represent a mere fraction of the 35,000 pieces produced for the king. However, since fragile individual forms were produced in very limited numbers, the turtles are considered exceedingly rare.

Early Meissen wares prove consistently popular among collectors. May 2 saw a distinctive, circa 1740 Meissen Hausmaler grotesque teapot make £109,250 ($169,984).

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