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Viennese porcelain elephant – £97,000 at Bonhams.

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For Heinrich Rothberger (1868-1953), owner of a department store in the prestigious Stephansplatz, it meant the loss of both the family business and his collection of early European porcelain with little or no compensation.

The Staatliche Kunstgewerbemuseum in the city had been the beneficiary of a harrowing ordeal that included the incarceration of family members in Buchenwald, a forced sale and a flight to Cuba in 1939. While some of the collection was returned in 1947 (when the family had settled in Canada), more than 20 choice pieces were retained by the museum (renamed Museum für angewandte Kunst) until 2003 when they were finally restituted to Rothberger’s niece, Bertha Gutmann.

It was these pieces, still bearing red museum inventory numbers, that were offered at Bonhams’ Fine European Ceramics sale on December 3 in London. As they came by descent to the vendor who was based outside the EU, import VAT of 5% plus Bonhams’ new premium rate of 27.5% up to £10,000 and 25% to £450,000 was also due on the hammer price.

Rothberger had specialised in Viennese porcelain at a time when its importance as the second-oldest hard-paste factory in Europe was not generally appreciated. His focus was the pioneering wares made during the aegis of the Dutch court official Claudius Innocentius du Paquier (d.1751) and in the period immediately after 1744 when the enterprise was acquired by the Austrian state.

Only recorded example

A large white porcelain model of an elephant, c.1750, is the only recorded example of its type. Naturalistically modelled standing with outstretched trunk and long tusks, it measures a full 20in (50cm) across, its only painted decoration being the Vienna shield mark in underglaze-blue.

Large models of elephants, inspired by the Kakiemon pachyderms that first arrived in Europe from Arita, Japan, in the 1680s, were made by a number of factories.

The Count Brühl inventory (1753) lists 20 Meissen elephants in various sizes (the largest was modelled by Peter Reinecke) while a similar model of an elephant wearing a caparison and draped in flora festoons was produced in Vienna, c.1740-44, during the Du Paquier era. Of these only two are now known: one (also in white) in the Sullivan collection in the Frick Museum and another with enamel decoration forming part of a silver-mounted centrepiece in the Hermitage.

This Vienna model had been part of the Rothberger collection as early as 1902 and was in good condition save some small chips to the toes and the left ear. While all of the 26 lots from the collection were sold, this was the best performer, sailing past its estimate of £10,000-15,000 to bring £97,000 (£121,500 including buyer’s premium). The buyer was the Princely Collections, Liechtenstein.

All pieces from the £979,309 group were acquired by either museums, institutions or private collections.