Portrait of Vilmos Zsolnay

"Zsolnay: Collecting a Culture"

by John Gacher

Through trial, error and complicated family politics, Vilmos Zsolnay by 1868 had firmly established his ceramics firm at Pecs (pronounced) Paach, the main southwest Hungarian provincial city. The very first products were simple wares for kitchen and industrial use and indeed the practical industrial and architectural production continues to the present day. Bricks, pipes, stoves, tiles, insulators,etc. can be found all over the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy, impressed: "Zsolnay, Pecs."

The first line of artistic and decorative wares was designed and produced in time for the international debut at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition with remarkable success. Renaissance-Revival, Folkloric, Turko-Hungarian, Japanesque, Romanesque-Gothic, Bronze Age archeological finds and Zeitgeist Victorian Eclecticism were the inspirations. Form and decoration must always be considered separately when collecting; the same form (or with minor variations) will appear with many different glazes or decorations and the combined variations result in thousands of unique examples. Impressed digits on the underside correspond to specific years so most pieces can be accurately dated although popular forms were kept in production long after their introduction. Many of those molds are still in use but modern marks are obvious. The value between a first period form and a later copy can be very great although occasionally a later copy will have a better glaze or decoration.

In 1900 Budapest was the youngest of the great cities of Europe. The year 1900 was a physical and spiritual zenith for Hungary and the high noon between the 1867 Austrian Compromise which crested with the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with Franz Josef of Hapsburg now King of Hungary and not emperor of merely subjected crown lands) and the 1920 Trianon Treaty of W.W. I. which dismembered the historic Crown Lands of St. Stephen (two-thirds of Hungary became parts of her neighbors). In 1900 over 700 new forms were created at Zsolnay-the record for any single year since. In 1900 Vilmos Zsolnay died and the business carried on through his son Miklos and two daughters Terez and Julia. Their three initials had already been incorporated into the five-steeple mark by the late 1870's.

The "golden period" can be considered to have been between 1895-1915 when the art nouveau (Sezession in Austro-Hungarian terms) examples were unparalleled. These "eosin" glazed pieces (iridescent Tiffany glass-like colors) named after Eos, the ancient Greek goddess of the dawn, tend to bring the highest prices and are sought by art nouveau collectors who are not interested in Zsolnay; but, the earlier, more bizarre pieces and the later cubist modernist (mostly red, green or purplish-blue eosine glaze) pieces are much more readily available and affordable to the average collector.

About 1920 the production of small animals and other sentimental figurines kept the factory going during the shock of post W.W.I. when Hungary lost international markets and Zsolnay lost the aristocratic and upper class markets. These small items have never gone out of production, have been added to every year and are the perfect souvenir of Hungary even today.

Zsolnay collecting is comparable to Amphora or Teplitz collecting, all being Central European manifestations of late historicism-revival styles and folkloric art nouveau. Many times they are seen displayed together at shops and shows. Research and reflection soon show more differences than similarities. There are a number of Zsolnay reference books (indeed all the family private papers and factory records remained intact until some mindless destruction in the early 1950's) although mostly in German or Hungarian.

There is no continuous or detailed history of the Amphora, Turn-Teplitz factory (at least in English) mainly because the firm changed hands and partnerships many times and those people disappeared along with much other Jewish history in the fires of W.W.II. It is known that from 1892 to .1940 the Amphora factory used a number of marks to reflect its different owners and periods and only a few of its artist are known. Although both Zsolnay and Amphora exported the vast majority of their products to the West, especially eager nouveau riche America, Amphora is more easily found here and consequently has more collectors even though a much less-known history. Zsolnay remains somewhat less understood, mis-priced and exotic and collectors tend to have Hungarian roots. Old Czechoslovakia was the manufacturing center of the Empire and consequently Bohemian products were more known throughout the world than Hungarian products. Hungary really remained the breadbasket of the Empire. Personally, I've always felt that the iridescent depth and vibrancy of the Zsolnay glazes outweighs the sometimes superior forms of Amphora. I find most Amphora glaze to be flat and dead but it's only a collector's preference and not a judgement.

The Zsolnay Works at Pecs can be considered the Eastern bastion of traditional international European applied art design and manufacture and this is no exaggeration. English pre-Raphaelite, French and German historicism-revivals, art nouveau and modernism were all spiced with folkloric (often Transylvanian) elements so successful that they were copied by Western European factories! The Czech school of design has always been a more mystically inspired aesthetic that the nationalistic folklores of often-devastated Hungary constantly re-building and re-discovering its identity. If certain cultures can always be identified with certain styles (have the French ever really left the Louis XV line?), the Hungarians have kept Romanesque in favor with the most amazing results especially during the Art Nouveau era with the help of much Zsolnay manufactured architectural materials. Architectural Zsolnay is not easily available or collectible outside old Habsburg lands but is readily visible from Prague to Triest and probably as far as Istanbul. Not even Zsolnay wall tiles seem to be found outside those old borders and the diversity in tiles alone could obsess a passionate collector.

The whole point is that there are many possibilities to collecting Zsolnay, even in America; from the most bizarre eclectic examples of late Victorianism to the most irrelevant little green animals and the many styles, forms and applications between. Be forewarned and advised that Zsolnay is perfect condition is the exception and not the rule. Two world wars and a social revolution have created many chips and cracks. Budapest was 60% damaged in the last days of the was and very many American pieces have their own story of abuse. Optimistically, Zsolnay repairs very well under the correct hands and price should naturally reflect condition. I've been lied to and paid too much for pieces with excellent repair and not discovered until under the right light or a more critical eye much later and too late to complain. So if you are perfect and can only be surrounded by perfection then don't consider collecting antique Zsolnay because perfect pieces will be few and far between. But one could collect the aspect of the more recent production.

Naturally, the largest public collections to be viewed are in Hungary. The main collection (confiscated from the Zsolnay family) at the Jannus Pannonius Museum in Pecs, Hungary fills six large exhibition rooms and even includes some family furniture room settings. The storage archives contain thousands of the choicest items which no one ever sees. The charming young Miss Orsolya Kovacs is in charge of the Zsolnay Department of the multi-interest Janus Pannonius Museum and her English is getting better every day. The Budapest Applied Arts Museum (I parmuveszeti) houses the second largest public collection but the enthusiastic ceramics curator there (Mrs. Eva Csenkey) does not have the present room or funds to display ANY of it and amazingly nothing is on view except for the many decorative architectural elements of the building itself.

The building itself is a monument to Zsolnay ! To this can be added a number of serious private collections both in Europe and America. It really isn't possible to understand the diversity and genius of the factory's products until one makes the pilgrimage to Vienna, Budapest, Pecs and most provincial cities of the former Crown Lands of St. Stephen to seek out the still mostly undiscovered and unheralded gems of the Zsolnay factory to be both admired and collected.

This photo was taken in September of 1996 in Meran, Italy. The statue is of "Sissy", Elizabeth, Empress of Austria.

Mr. Gacher is The Zsolnay consultant to Schroeder's Antique Price Guide, a frequent traveler to the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and of course a Zsolnay collector. This article is copyright 1996 by Mr. Gacher.

"Zsolnay Ceramics Collecting a Culture" with price guide: "This beautifully illustrated guide to Zsolnay ceramics featuring over 400 color photographs covers the three main periods of Zsolnay production, including 1868 to 1897-Folklorism, Historicism & Victorian Eclecticism; 1897 to 1920-Art Nouveau (Secession in Central European terms) and Art Deco (Second Secession); 1920 to the present-Modernism. An entire chapter; fully illustrated is also dedicated to Zsolnay marks to help collectors identity their pieces." This book is 191 pages and is a large format hard cover. The over 400 color photos detail Zsolnay by size, form number, date of production and current market value. Available July 30, 1998. Price: $49.95 + shipping.

The Zsolnay Tile Gallery

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