Spelter - the poor man’s bronze

Graham Paddison with  a pair of  spelter figures of mounted warriors

Graham Paddison with a pair of spelter figures of mounted warriors

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As far back as ancient Greek and Roman times homes have been decorated with cast bronze figures and works of art, albeit the cost put such pieces beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of people.

Things changed almost overnight in the mid-19th Century when an enterprising entrepreneur came up with the idea of producing cast metal figures with another alloy – spelter.

Unlike bronze, which is usually a blend of 90% copper and 10% tin, spelter is a combination of less expensive metals, zinc and lead.

Cheaper – and undoubtedly inferior – spelter may be, but gild it or paint it and it really can look quite the business. The major centre of the production of spelter figures was Berlin where a number of manufacturers opened up in the second half of the century and it was a German by the name of Geiss who discovered a process of bronzing the surface of spelter, which of course gave these imitation bronzes even greater appeal.

Inexperienced people can still be fooled into mistaking spelter for bronze. However, it is much lighter in weight and if we scrape the underneath of the base of an object the metal will be revealed as greyish silver, rather than the golden colour of bronze.

Spelter was perhaps to achieve the height of its popularity at around the turn of the century, but large quantities of pieces were manufactured well into the 1920’s and 1930’s and Art Deco examples can often exceed the prices achieved by earlier Victorian pieces.

It was used to produce figures, clock cases, furniture mounts and many other objects including garden sculptures, even though the alloy does not fare particularly well in the open air and once a piece has been affected by corrosion there is little which can be done to repair the damage. That is one of the things to look for when considering buying a piece.

Look carefully too at gilding, which can often be poor quality, and at the paint where appropriate – corrosion breaks through the paint layer causing black or white discolouration and, as I say, there is not much which can be done about it.

Because spelter is a soft, brittle metal which is usually quite thinly cast, it is surprisingly fragile. Figures tend to break at the ankles, arms and other weak areas. That being the case, objects should always be picked up by the base, never the arms or other protruding areas and they should be supported from below when being carried.

Painted and gilded spelter should not be kept in direct sunlight or near fires or radiators because of potential damage to the paintwork and pieces should never be kept in damp conditions.

The pair of figures which we have pictured are fairly typical of the spelter that we regularly see in the saleroom. Depicting medieval style soldiers riding horses they date from the late 19th Century and are continental in manufacture, probably French. Soldiers and horses are a common subject along with allegorical figures such as the four seasons, industry and commerce.

Like so many items of Victorian ornamentation spelter figures have gone down in value.

These went under the hammer at our Antique and Fine Art auction in July with an estimate of £100-£150 and they fetched £180 which was a pleasant surprise.

Details of up and coming sales can be found at www.dahauctions.com

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