So what makes some Royal Doulton pieces more valuable than others? Like with most collectibles rarity, scarcity, quality and in some cases the subject matter.
Most of the valuable pieces were produced in very limited quantity which happened for many different reasons ranging from war putting production to a halt (like with the rare WWII pieces), copyright issues (found with productions of famous people such as the Clark Gable jug), marketing concerned an item was to costly to produce (often only after the production was already underway which sometimes meant a remodeling took place like with the iconic Pearly Boy jug or it was discontinued completely), the companies financial problems, causing the restructuring and often the discontinuation of lines, concern an item could break too easily which meant the piece needed to be remodeled (making the earlier version far more valuable) and lastly prototypes or trials that never went into production at all.
Terms are often thrown around (in order to entice the buyer) so let us define the most important ones according to the general industry standards.
Prototype: an item that was commissioned but never put into production. This term includes any piece that was not put into production at all such as John Gilpin Jug or was the item was produced but with remodeling differences from the originally proposed version. These differences could be a remodeled handle or facial changes. Very few prototypes can be taken from the original clay mold and so with early prototypes usually only one or two samples were made and later pieces anywhere between two to four samples could exist.
Design Trial: these pieces are the standard model but have a very clear design difference often with such things as flags. Where as the standard production piece might have a Union Jack flag on the trial their will be a St George Cross flag. Many design trials are unique and at the very most there can be as many as three or four.
Colour Trial: these pieces have the same model as the production piece but were painted in different colors that were never put into production (these differ from colorways that were put into production such as the Jester which was released in multiple colors each with a different production number). As with early prototypes the older pieces in color trials are usually unique where as with later trials there are usually two to three and in some cases a few more. Please note that some items, though rare, are not color trials but are just missing the over glaze (such as with white Santa jug or blue flambe Genie jug).
Firsts/Samples/Photo Samples: these were the first mock ups of an item to be put into production. They are painted with greater attention to detail and are the pieces from which the catalog photos are taken. These pieces do sell for a premium and are marked sample or photo sample.
Unique: only one is known to exist, this means that no other piece like this has come to auction or been sold to the best of the knowledge of the dealer (who has checked thoroughly with all the known authorities and the specialist auctions). The Charlton and other guides will use the term unique or one known to exist (sometimes the term none known to exist is also used when an item was put into production but is only known due to the Royal Doulton archives listing it). With early pieces it is likely they are unique and with later items as many as three may have been made (whether all have survived is another matter entirely).
Extremely Rare: this is the term generally used to describe items that were put into production but of which very few are known to exist and have not been sold at auction often enough to establish a retail price in the guides.
Rare: this is the term given to items that were put into production and more than a few are known to exist but have not come up for sale often enough at an auction to establish a retail price in the guides.
Scarce: these are items that were created in sizable production numbers but are so beloved that they seldom come up for sale (of course this is also a fairly subjective term). One such example is the Character Jug of Marley’s Ghost that was a limited edition of 2500 pieces in 1999 which is so sought after that I have seen it currently retailing for double or triple the listed book value with known Doulton sellers).
Please note that in part two I mentioned that one of the ways of identifying if an item was made outside of the factory is if the stamp is over the glaze. This is not the case when the special property of Royal Doulton stamp is used (for prototypes and other trials).
Royal Doulton sadly never kept the best records. In fact the first complete list of the HN series was only published in 1978. Prototypes and trials that were never assigned production numbers were often not recorded at all! With the closing of the Royal Doulton offices in Stoke on Trent unique and previously unknown items now need to be authenticated by known dealers and auction houses (of which luckily there are many).
It is with these rarer items that the value gains have been seen. The prices are likely to continue to rise now that the production of character jugs & figurines has been so greatly shrunk or been halted entirely. There could not be a better time to start collecting or dealing!
Many of the Royal Doulton collectors are not keen about buying items produced after 1999, In the year 2000 Royal Doulton came out with a new stamp and soon after moved production of most items to Thailand. Though some of the models are exquisite it is clear that the painting quality has suffered and many of the jugs receive a lot of transfer paint The exception is the prestige series which is still produced in the UK and done, by the very best painters, by custom order. I am personally still purchasing later prototypes and some design trials as these items were also produced in the UK and are completely hand painted.
If you intend to focus on the rarer pieces I recommend keeping in contact with known dealers or purchasing from reputable specialist auctions. Though finding three fakes every few month out of the 58000 items listed on Ebay may not seem like a lot, when those fakes are valuable pieces selling for a couple of thousand or more the experience can be quiet painful so be careful. Those looking to just find the pieces they adore that are fairly common should indeed make use of the online auctions as one can truly find bargain prices.
One opportunity I am seeing at the moment for those wondering where to start is in the earlier pieces. Focus on the rare pieces of the WWII period. Many of the estates of early Doulton collectors have been coming up for sale in the last few years and pieces that were coming up for sale once every few years are now reaching the market at a fair price and with more frequency. These include items that were produced with very special back-stamps to mark special events often in very limited productions. This trend will definitely not last as the collectors that started in the 90’s are grabbing them up. It is important to note that many of the earlier pieces though originally produced in decent quantities have been damaged, lost or destroyed over time and this only makes those still around all the more valuable.
In conclusion, Royal Doulton collectors are indeed alive and well. Those who just want to amass a lovely collection with pieces they enjoy should purchase these pieces at a fair price and understand they will likely not appreciate. As for those wanting to see steady appreciation, the focus should be on the rarer and unique pieces as these will undoubtedly continue to increase in value.
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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest