The Royal Crown Derby (RCD) china factory on Osmaston Road had been going since 1878 and received a Royal Warrant to prefix its name with ‘Royal’ in 1890. In 1935 the firm absorbed the King Street China factory, thereby acquiring a virtually unbroken ceramic tradition going back to the foundation of the original factory on Nottingham Road in 1750 or thereabouts.
Since the later 20th century it has endured ups-and-downs, changes of ownership – some good, some less beneficial – and so on. The problem has always been to maintain sales at a level commensurate with keeping the company profitable. This has involved the marketing men, one of whom in 1981 suggested that to launch a range of anthropomorphic Imari painted paperweights might be a good idea.
A modest range was introduced from that September and indeed, collectors liked them, although the first series were a little fragile and, being filled with sand, were heavy to post and leaked. The leakages were because the base was fitted with a gilt-metal stopper which could come loose. Consequently, the bodies were made stronger and were made more robust. The stoppers for the first seventeen of this revised range were ceramic and fired on, with a hole beside the position to aid firing.
This, too was found to be unsatisfactory – the marketing men discovered the collectors did not like ceramic false stoppers. So from this point the gilt stoppers were re-introduced and the paperweights sold empty of sand, allowing the punter to install his own makeweight. The models were also boxed, and if you decide to collect these modest but attractive and colourful items, buying one with its box is absolutely essential.
To date there seem to have been some 488 different models, mostly birds, animals and mythical creatures, but occasionally a building (a model of a typical pub called The Admiral Lord Nelson to commemorate Trafalgar’s 200th anniversary in 2005 for instance) or other less animate object, like crowns. A miniature range numbering some 50 different designs was also introduced, although how effective these would be at holding down one’s papers in a stiff breeze is open to question.
Models were ‘retired’ and replaced by new ones regularly, thus ensuring rarity and other commemorations made. Indeed, to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the entire paperweight range in 2002, a special seven-sided gilt metal stopper was introduced on a limited basis.
To buy these paperweights new from RCD tends to be expensive, for each one is hand-decorated by one of the company’s china painters, so no two are exactly alike. Hence today prices range from a modest £100 for a Blue Tit, through to a gilt butterfly for £180, a golden eagle (close) for £335, to the giddy heights of the Old Imari gold band limited edition swan which will leave you with but a fiver in change from a £600 punt.
If you are going to collect, you have to buy second hand; at auction is perhaps best. Bamford’s recently had a howling wolf on offer estimated at £40-60 (boxed) and an unboxed lama at £25-35 with gold stopper. For smaller ones, we tend to lot them in groups, especially if lacking boxes. On e-bay too bargains may be had. I noticed one called Boris on offer at £70, and clicked upon it wondering if it was a caricature of a well-known blonde politician, but – alas! – it turned out to be a rather nice badger introduced in February 2006 and priced at £70, although when I was young, badgers tended to be called Bill and were friends of Rupert.
A popular paperweight from 2003 was a limited-edition Derby County ram decorated by Sue Rowe which retailed at £95. Only 200 were made, so today that would turn out to be a good investment, with prices ranging recently from £120 to an eye-watering £275. Another popular one is the well-known meerkat from a certain TV advertisement and named (ironically) after a member of a Russian Princely family. From an initial price of over £100, examples with gold stopper and box are turning up ranging from £55 to £95 – clearly you need to buy second hand: simples.
Incidentally, you will encounter examples with silver coloured stoppers – sometime quite difficult to distinguish from certain gold coloured ones, so care is needed when examining them. These are to distinguish ‘seconds’ from top quality examples, and command somewhat lower prices. If you want to collect them for the sheer enjoyment of their varied forms and vivid colours, then silver stoppers might suit your taste and pocket.
But if you require quality, and something which will, if you keep it long enough, represent a reasonable investment, you need to buy examples unchipped with colours uncompromised, with gold coloured stoppers and with box of sale in good condition. Furthermore, some limited editions, like the Derby County ram, do appreciate well, although not much movement on The Lord Nelson as yet, I’m afraid.
They are always marked on the underside and carry the usual RCD date, so you can date your acquisitions, too. Nevertheless, if you buy on-line or at auction, you can if you are lucky pick up items at a very reasonable cost and indeed at auction you might catch one of the rarer ones at an affordable price.