Antique Figurine Buying Guide

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Antique Figurine Buying Guide

Antique figurines are miniature creations that are great for gift giving or collecting. As an antique, the figurines should at least be 100 years old. Antique figurines can be found in a variety of materials, subjects, styles and sizes. This guide provides an overview of the most popular materials used in collectable antique figurines, some information on collecting them, and a general guide for their care. Bringing antique figurines to a home can add a great deal of charm, nostalgia and craftsmanship to a shelf, display cabinet or chest. The rich and varied history of antique figurine production offers plenty to choose from. 

History of Antique Figurines

The earliest figurines were found in Asia and Africa, which were depictions of pregnant female deities made of stone, later called the Venus statues. In Europe, the earliest ceramic figurines, made of fired clay, were dated from 25,000 to 30,000 B.C. Figurines have been important throughout history as indicators of cultural customs, religious iconography, and other ceremonial purposes. These items have served as important cultural markers because they take on the materials and styles of the culture from which they spring. As such, there are a massive variety of antique figurines available to a buyer. In time, porcelain became a prized material to make decorative household figurines with, first in China and then in Germany, reaching its height in the city of Dresden. Other materials such as glass, bronze and ceramic also been used popularly for collectibles, taking on the style trends of their contemporary period.    

Discover Antique Figurines

There are antique figurines to suit any personal interest or decorative inclination. Antique figurines are often finely crafted miniature sculptures or casts, which can be considered affordable pieces of artwork to fill a domestic space. There is a great versatility in content, ranging from a favourite breed of dog, an abstract representation of a figure, a religious icon, or much more. As such, antique figurines make great gifts, collectibles, or decorative pieces for a room. They can add a touch of playful whimsy, meaningful nostalgia, or decorative element to a space. Building a valuable antique figurine collection can also be an engaging and rewarding hobby that can be passed on for generations.

Materials of Antique Figurines

There are a great variety of different antique figurine styles available from different periods and places. The materials used to make a figurine will determine some of its historical and thematic usages.

Part

Description

Porcelain

Porcelain figurines are highly valued for their durable yet delicate beauty, and versatility. Naturally pale white in colour, porcelain figurines have a very smooth surface that can be hand-painted with brush lines and other colours. Since porcelain has a very high melting point, it has an almost glass-like characteristic that requires a great deal of skill to shape, giving it long-lasting properties.

Ceramic

Ceramic figurines are similar to porcelain in appearance, although ceramic requires a much lower temperature to harden. Because of this property, ceramic figurines are easier and less time-consuming to make. However, ceramic is also more porous and requires a protective glaze or several coats of paint to prevent damage over time. Ceramic figures are strong and easy to clean, but the decorative details are typically less refined than delicate porcelain paintwork. 

Bronze

Bronze figurines require a great deal of time and resources to make, so usually they're more expensive, and less common to find. Bronze expands just before it dries, allowing very small details to be captured by the artist at this time. Generally, bronze is a scarce resource and it corrodes easily from the elements. 

An alloy of bronze and gold, called ormolu, became very popular in 18th century France. It's typically used for accent pieces on antique figurines. The ormolu found in antique figurines is very rare, because the process for making it is now illegal due to adverse health effects on the craftsmen.  

Spelter

Commonly used to describe pure zinc cast figurines, spelter can also be a zinc alloy that's usually mixed with copper. This material was considered a cheap alternative to bronze in the 19th century, and it was a popular choice for Art Deco and Art Nouveau figurines in the early 20th century.

Resin

Easy to make, resin figurines are made by pouring a quick-setting synthetic resin into a cast. The resulting figurines are lightweight, sturdy, and take well to paint. There are many varieties of resin antique figurines, although common groupings are Egyptian figures, Eastern deities and groom and bride wedding cake toppers.

Types of Antique Figurines

There are several types of antique figurine, which can be classified according to their production type.

Type

Description

Advantages

Considerations

Limited edition

Limited edition figurines are made in a quantity that's been previously specified. They usually come with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and are marked with a number indicating the total number of figurines produced, and the number of figurines the collector has.

All the information that a collector would want is included, such as official documentation and markings. The item is deliberately more rare, which may increase the value of the figurine.

Harder to find or replace if any damage occurs.

Annual edition

Figurines only produced for one year.

These figurines are easy to date and can be a valuable collector's item due to their relative scarcity.

Hard to find and replace if any damage occurs. There may be later editions of the figurine that have improved or more desirable features.

Open edition

These figurines don't have a production end date that's specified, and they'll usually continue to be produced until the company decides to stop.

Easier to find and often more affordable because they're more common.

Perhaps not as rare or unique as some scarcer collectable figurines.

Artist proof

A figurine that's set-aside for the artist's own collection.

A chance to view the figurine from the artist's perspective - why he/she would have chosen a particular figurine instead of another. Perhaps there may be markings indicating the artist at work, showing the process of creation.

The artist's care of the figurine may not equal the care provided by a skilled collector.

Retired

These are figurines that are no longer in production, and the moulds used to create them have deliberately been broken to prevent future reproductions.

Guaranteed that the demand for the figurine won't get much higher, so they're good for collectables. 

Very hard to find a replacement, or possibly to acquire one.  

Factors to Consider When Buying Antique Figurines

Depending on the purpose, a certain number of factors should be considered before purchasing an antique figure, separately or as a collection.

  • Appraisals – getting an appraisal for a figurine is a good way to know the current, and potentially future, value of the item. This is important for collectors who would like to sell or insure an antique figurine. 
  • Condition - the condition of the figurine should factor into the value of the antique as a whole. Especially if planning on reselling, keeping an antique figurine in near-mint or mint condition is very important. 
  • Rarity–it is important to consider if rarity is an important factor for a purchase, or whether a more common (and affordable) figurine is a better choice. In the case of purchasing a rare antique figurine, try to get as much supporting documentation to prove that this is the case. 
  • Provenance and maker's marks - A provenance provides supporting documents like purchase receipts, old photographs and other evidence about the history of the antique figurine. Similarly, the maker's mark shows the date of production.

Typical Features of Antique Figurines

Figurines vary widely in style and subject matter, although there are some unifying features that combine to make a figurine.

  1. Maker's mark or stamp - Highly valuable figurines have a distinguishing mark of its maker. Hand painted figurines with an artist's signature have the highest value
  2. Fine materials - Antique figurines are usually highly decorative and thus, feature decorative materials or artistic techniques. Porcelain, glass and bronze are highly prized antique figurine materials. 
  3. Representational style - By definition, figurines need to represent some kind of figure, such as a person, animal or deity. The degree to which this figure is stylized and decorative is up to the artist. 
  4. Small size - Figurines are basically sculptures in miniature. Although the official size of a figurine is not clearly defined, they are often small enough to form a cabinet collection or fit into a smaller space in the house. 

How to Care for Antique Figurines

Antique figurines should be placed in a cool, dry place without extreme temperature changes, as this can cause the material to warp or crack. If not being displayed, wrap antique figurines in bubble wrap or another protective material.

Antique figurines should be dusted regularly with a soft, dust-attracting cloth and a small paintbrush to get into small nooks and crannies.

Prepare a soft surface to clean antique figurines, in case they fall from your hand. Dip a soft cloth or brush into a mixture of warm water and dish soap, washing to remove dirt and dust. A soft toothbrush or cotton swab can help reach into the little crevices of the figurines. Rinse the figurine in a soft cloth dipped in water, ensuring that any air holes in the figurine are covered so that water doesn't enter inside. Let the figurines air dry on a paper towel before restoring them to a display cabinet.

Rare porcelain figurines should rarely, if ever, be scrubbed, because the delicate finish may get ruined. They should also never be put in the dishwasher or treated with regular household cleaning chemicals.

Popular Antique Figurine Manufacturers

  • Royal Doulton
  • Derby
  • Staffordshire
  • Royal Worcester
  • Russ Berrie
  • Emmett Kelly
  • Hummel
  • Lladro
  • Napco
  • Limoges
  • Sevre
  • Meissen

Accessories and Add-ons for Antique Figurines

These accessories for an antique figurine should be useful for its upkeep.

  • Soft cloth for dusting or cleaning
  • Soft bristled paintbrush or toothbrush for cleaning into small crevices of the figurine
  • Glass-fronted curio cabinet
  • Bubble wrap for non-display storage

Finding Antique Figurines on eBay

Once you determine the type of antique figurines you want to purchase, visit the Antiques portal on eBay, click on 'Figurines/ Statues', then start searching item listings. The Categories list on the left-hand side of the eBay page helps to narrow the search.

Searching for Antique Figurineson eBay

Search eBay listing titles for specific words when shopping for antique figurines. For example, to find porcelain dog antique figurines, type 'Porcelain Dog Antique Figurine' into the search box, and then click the Advanced button to customise the results. Also visit eBay’s Search Tips page for more advice on searching for antique figurines with keywords. If you can’t find the antique figurine you want, try shopping eBay Stores.

Conclusion

Antique figurines can make an elegant addition to a room's decor, an impressive gift, or a memorable part of a collection. There are an extensive variety of styles, eras, materials and price ranges to choose from. Consider the function and visual style of the item before starting a search for an antique figurine. This guide has outlined the basic kinds of antique figurines, some considerations to take into account before purchase, and tips for caring after an antique figurine. Once you have collected this information, you can buy an antique figurine safely and securely on eBay.

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