Few objects say "country" more plainly than antique ceramic cows.
The image of a cow contentedly grazing in a field sums up the very essence of country life for many, Marie Proeller writes in the April issue of Country Living. Perhaps that's the reason why ceramic figurines, creamers, vases, tureens and other items bearing this beloved bovine image have been collected and used throughout the home for hundreds of years.
"There's always been a good market for these items," confirms Joseph Arman, owner of Collector's Sales and Service, a Middletown, R.I., absentee auction house that specializes in English ceramics and Early American glass.
Of the many antique ceramics made in the image of this favorite farm animal, perhaps the greatest number hail from the potteries based in England's Staffordshire district. From the 18th century through the turn of this century, potters there crafted these earthenware and stoneware pieces, often in pairs, then decorated them in colors from realistic black-and-white and brown-and-white combinations to fanciful shades of red, pink, orange, green and yellow.
Typically, creamers and figurines placed the cows on decorative bases, which often received a green wash to mimic a patch of grass. Sometimes the cows were accompanied by a smaller figure, such as a milkmaid, a young cowherd or a calf. Such variety piqued collector interest as much then as it does now.
The most desirable antique examples predate 1860, when intricate details began to be lost to mass-production techniques. Prices generally start at less than $300 and can reach $1,000 or more, depending on age and condition.
Late 19th century examples, although generally lacking the fine details of earlier examples, tend to be more affordable. Creamers that retain their original lids are especially prized.
Items in perfect condition hold the highest value, yet most collectors have come to expect some wear and tear, because these utilitarian pieces were designed to be used daily.
"If the cow's original horn, tail or leg has been skillfully reattached, it won't detract considerably from a piece's value," Arman points out. Replacing an original part with a newly molded one, however, will have a negative effect.
Few early pieces are marked (those made for export after the 1890s often bear an underglazed "ENGLAND" on the bottom), opening the door for reproductions that have moseyed onto the market in recent years.
Knowledge of the subject matter is one of a collector's best defenses against reproductions. To increase your familiarity with the pieces, Country Living advises, visit shops, shows and auction previews and, whenever possible, hold the pieces, examine the glaze and feel their weight (authentic examples are generally heavier than reproductions).