What you see: The Aristocrats, a cold-painted and carved ivory figural group in ivory and bronze on a green onyx base, created circa 1925 by Professor Otto Poertzel. Bonhams estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.
The expert: Gemma Sanders, head of the department of 20th century decorative arts and design at Bonhams.
Who was Professor Otto Poertzel? He was a successful German commercial artist. He’s best known for his Art Deco statuettes executed in bronze and ivory.
How did he get the title of “Professor”? The title was given to him in 1913 by Duke Carl Eduard, the last member of the ruling family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He gave it possibly because Poertzel was a founding member of the Coburg Art Association. Perhaps the professor title was a nod to his academic associations.
Did Poertzel only create Art Deco statuettes, or did he work in other media as well? We know he honed his craft as a porcelain designer. He learned his craft in porcelain, as an apprentice. Once he was a commercial artist, he made large-scale public artworks in stone as well as statuettes for commercial production.
How prolific was Poertzel? It’s difficult to know exactly how many pieces he produced. He was as much a designer as an artist. As an auctioneer, I see his works less often than his contemporaries.
The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is described as “cold-painted”. What is cold-painting? It’s a way to apply color to a bronze after the casting process. Once it’s cold, the color can be applied.
It seems like there was a vogue for decorative figures and statuettes during the Art Deco period. Do we have any idea why they caught on then? It’s tricky. I don’t know why they took off or who was the first to produce the figures, but I know they were produced before the Art Deco period. Art Nouveau figures featured beautiful young women in flowing outfits, but with more gilt. The Art Deco period was about high-end materials and exotic, rare finishes. At the time, ivory was seen as the best material for intricate carving. I think the figures captured the glamorous, positive, upbeat feeling of the time.
Is this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure unique, or was it part of an edition? We know it isn’t a one-off because others have come to market. I should stress that there have not been many–six in 20 years. Figures of this quality were expensive, even at that time. They were expensive because of the ivory components.
Do the other figures look identical to this one, or do they vary? I know examples where the hair is part of the bronze casting and examples where the hair is part of the ivory. And sometimes, there are contrasting details to the dress–the cold-painting might be different.
Where would something like this have been sold when it was new? They were most commonly offered in high-end department stores–Harrods, or that city’s equivalent. If one sold, another would have been requested from Priess Kassler [a foundry that produced the figures] or directly from the artist.
The Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure has a circa date of 1925. How do we know it was made around then? Does it have a date on its base? No. Other figures like it are very difficult to date. We use “circa 1925” for auction purposes. It could date to the mid-1920s, the late 1920s, the early 1930s, there’s no way of knowing.
I take it there’s no surviving production records? No, not for things like this.
This Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure is called “The Aristocrats”. Do we know how it got its name? Possibly it was given its name in the 1970s or 1980s, when these figures became popular again.
Do we know anything about how or why Professor Otto Poertzel created this particular Art Deco figure? We know he likes the medieval look. He adopted it for a few of his figures. The Borzoi dogs were fashionable at the time for their lean look. And in a book by Alberto Shayo, there’s an archival photo of Mrs. Edmund Guy at the Casino de Paris music hall that looks like her [the human figure in the group].
So Professor Otto Poertzel might have had that woman performer model for him for this figure? We don’t have images to back that up, but it’s what his contemporaries would have done. Demetre Chiparus had the Dolly Sisters model for him. Certainly, Poetzel would have had a model at the first part of the process. He would have sculpted his figure, and that figure would have been cast.
How involved might Poertzel have been with the creation of this Art Deco figure? Did he create the design and hand it off to others to fabricate, or did he participate in its physical creation? The design is certainly his. It’s not known if he carved every piece or was involved in the process, but it’s likely he had help with some of the processes. He was probably more involved because he was not as prolific as his contemporaries, and his ivory-carving is superior.
The quality of the carving on the ivory face convinces you that Poertzel personally did it? The face is exquisite–beautifully carved, and she’s actually a beautiful-looking woman. I see a lot [of these Art Deco figures], and others are not so good, not so real-looking. He is one of the best carvers. The quality is so good, I see it with only one other maker, Ferdinand Priess.
And that would be your favorite detail of the piece–the woman’s face? The face is exquisite, and not easy to achieve in ivory. I also love the stride she’s taking under her long skirt. It’s quite fabulous in reality. It comes down to his modeling ability, to create a feeling of movement. That’s where a figure can look stiff and stifled. He designed it so perfectly… it’s probably from his years of training in porcelain modeling.
What is the Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? I talked about how beautiful the face is. She has a quiet confidence to her expression, in the way she’s looking down. A lot of figures just stare at you. She’s strikingly elegant, striding out and looking down. To give a figure like that emotion is very difficult to do.
What do we know about the provenance of this Poertzel figure? It’s been privately owned for a half-century or more.
What condition is it in? And what condition issues do you see with Art Deco figures like this one? Ivory is a natural material. If it heats and cools and heats and cools, it can crack. Cracks in the ivory are often engrained with dirt, and can be detrimental to the look of the piece. Sometimes, there’s a hairline crack in the face of a figure that creates a gray line. This is in very good condition–no hairline cracks to the ivory. Her ivory is very clean. She’s had careful ownership.
I’m doing this interview from the United States. May I bid on this Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? No, unless you have a home in another part of the world where you can enjoy it. It cannot be imported into the United States. The laws governing ivory in the U.K. and Europe are different.
What’s the world auction record for this particular Professor Otto Poertzel Art Deco figure? It was £43,700 [about $54,000], set at Sotheby’s in 2007.
Is that also the world auction record for any piece by Professor Otto Poertzel? I was not able to find a higher price, so it might be it. The highest that Bonhams has achieved is $40,000. We’re very excited to have this figure.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? For me, I think, the stride in her step, her movement, and the confidence in her face. I would like to bottle that confidence.
Images are courtesy of Bonhams.
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