It was not in good condition (two figures were missing along with elements of the bocage) but it went way above the estimate of just £100-200 at the auction on December 12 to bring £6350.
This 13in (34cm) wide by 15in (40cm) high figure group dates from c.1830-35, at a time when menageries, popular in England from the late 18th century, had begun to evolve into what we now know as a circus.
Italian-born Stephano Polito owned a celebrated travelling show, described in newspaper adverts of the period as a ‘…grand and pleasing assemblage of most rare and beautiful living beasts, from the remotest parts of the known world’. His family continued to tour animals throughout the 1820s-30s, although tragically the exhibit was lost at sea en route to Ireland in 1835.
A number of different versions of Polito’s Menagerie exist, of which this one – sometimes associated with the Burslem potter Obadiah Sherratt – is among the most elaborate. The elephant may be Chunee, a star attraction, and the female figure at the door could represent Mrs Polito.
By coincidence, a version of the same group in better condition sold for £18,000 at Bonhams on December 15. Acquired from Jonathan Horne in 2004, it formed part of the collection of Chicago pottery enthusiasts James and Ruth ‘Timmey’ Challenger and, as such, import VAT of 5% plus the usual fees was due on the hammer price. A recent benchmark for this figure was the example sold by Sotheby’s as part of the Stanley Seeger collection in 2018 at £20,000.
The Franklin Browns sale included, from the same estate collection, a pair of pearlware ‘table base’ half-length busts of William IV and his wife. Titled King William the Fourth and Queen Adaerlene (sic), each stood 10in (26cm) high. They had restoration to the feet but took £5300 (estimate £300-500).
It was a good week for Staffordshire rarities of this period. At Anderson & Garland (22% buyer’s premium) in Newcastle on December 7, bidders converged on a scarce group of marital strife known by the title Who shall wear the breeches?
In front of a fireplace where plaques hang reading Conquer or Die and Who Shall Wear the Breches (sic), the battle of the sexes is played out between husband and wife.
There are two variants of this group (another has the captions reversed and a bundled babe on the floor) and they are known with different base types suggesting they were produced by more than one factory. However, all are rare with survivors counted on one hand.
Similar to others in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam and the Willett collection in Brighton, it improved on its guide of £200-300 to sell at £5000.