Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Zaras

A few years ago, I was exhibiting at a local model horse show. I love shows because you can see sculptures up close and examine them beyond any photographic detail. A couple of feet from my table, I spied a very dark colored Hagen-Renaker large 9" Zara. I asked the owner if I could pick her up and take a closer look, which she allowed with a smile. Even though I make ceramic horses for a living, I don't assume I can just pick up anyone's stuff!

The owner admitted she was disappointed that the horse that she purchased as a San Marcos Gloss Palomino off eBay turned out to be so very dark and not at all palomino. The eBay seller was, in fact, a Renaker family member, selling many San Marcos pieces, but not very familiar with them.

Text from the original auction page: "This is a beautiful HR Designer's Workshop gloss-finish palomino ZARA horse, measuring 9" x 10 1/2". It's in pristine mint condition. My grandparents are Maxine and John Renaker, founders of Hagen-Renaker ceramics. I have pieces from the Spring line of Designer's Workshop (1983), made in San Marcos, CA. (I have no miniatures.) I will list a few more horses and farm animals in the coming months. Please feel free to write me with any questions at all."

The buyer was particularly fond of palomino models, and was hoping for just a slightly darker palomino variation, based on the auction images. In person, the piece was clearly a flaxen liver chestnut, with pale yellow mane and tail. Her markings also did not match other Palomino Zaras. Odder still, this was not the retooled 1980's mold of normal San Marcos Zaras. This was the old Monrovia/San Dimas mold. The clear overglaze was long-crackled like other San Marcos clear-overglazed horses I'd seen. An old mold, poured in brown slip, that fell in a San Marcos vat of gloss dipping glaze? Very few of the old mold Zaras were poured in the brown slip, and they are the very rare and desirable bays (aka, "browns", but have black mane/tail). I mentioned these issues to the owner, and she was surprised at just how many traits were odd.

The owner asked how I could tell if it was cast in the brown slip. I said the pour chill lines told me it was, but undeniable proof would be to scratch or sand through the black underglaze on the dry-footed bottom of a hoof. If the clay is dark brown when wetted, it was poured in brown slip. She later reported that she tried it, and it was in fact brown slip. All normal Palomino Zaras were poured in a pale yellow slip.

Her scratch test on a hoof, dry in this pic:

She posted this after our chat:
"Anyway, I wanted to see if anyone might have any
ideas on this Zara that I acquired from Alexis Brazel (crushtapes) last
fall. As many of you may have watched the eBay auctions where I bought her,
Alexis is the granddaughter of the Renaker's and was selling a lot of older
HR's that had been boxed and stored for 20 years direct from the San Marcos
factory shelves at the time.

This mare is a chocolate brown and has a cream colored mane, tail, blaze,
and sock. She has tri-colored eyes. According to another collector, she is
has Monrovia mold detail with a different era paintjob. I know nothing about
the mold differences between each Monrovia and the others, but was told this
mare has the upper eyelid detail and the small neck wrinkles seen in the
Monrovia pieces and not the later pieces. From the looks on her belly, she
has a filled pour hole."

A little later, I was working on a portrait of her real horse. A happy ending for everyone: she got a palomino she wanted, and the "definitely not palomino" Zara came to live with me. I have seen a few HR tests in my time, and it became clear that this was a test. Even the initial signature of the test decorator for San Marcos was there, carved into the foot.

The scenario would have made sense; potters waste nothing. Got a leftover body from the San Dimas era? Just opening a new factory division in San Marcos? Want a new color to run on the previously issued 9" family? Molds take time to retool, pour, and dry. While you wait, test with what you have on hand, start taking orders, and get to work!

I later purchased a palomino regular run Zara, that I am told has markers of the earliest ones. Compared side-by-side, they are vastly different. Could this really be the test for the palomino run? Was it older than 1983? It just didn't fit that last piece of the puzzle.

Showing tri-eyes detail on both, mold differences. Both are from San Marcos.

In December of 2008, I hosted an all-ceramic horse competition at my studio. Two exhibitors arrived a little early to unload their show boxes. They took a look at my collection, and naturally, horses started coming out. Jo Ellen Arnold pulled an amazingly detailed old Zara out of her tote. This piece was poured in brown slip, decorated liver chestnut, and was at one time photographed in the Hagen-Renaker factory archives. The best date I can find for a brown slip Zara is 1968. Collectors thus consider it a factory test, although it appears to have been decorated by the original sculptor, Maureen Love. Excited, I pulled my weird Zara out of the cabinet, and comparisons began. They had the same white markings! The liver sisters were reunited, although separated in glaze age by decades.

Photos by Keith Bean:

The 1983 (going by the auction description) gloss has typical San Marcos gloss long crackle. The 1968(?) test is old matte glaze.

Purely speculation, but it may be that Jim saw the original Zara in the archives between 1980-1983 (it went into private collector hands around 1989) and styled his own San Marcos test after it. The San Marcos liver chestnut was not decorated by Maureen. It has overall less attention to decoration detail, overspray on mane/tail, little to no body shading, and it has the SM factory test decorator's mark. As no other liver chestnut Zaras are known, this color clearly was not selected for production.

Arnold, Jo Ellen. Personal communication.
Roller, Gayle. Hagen-Renaker: A Charlton Standard Guide. Third Edition. The Charlton Press: Palm Harbor, FL, 2003.


  1. This was posted to me on the breakables yahoogroup, as the original comment didn't go through on blogger:


    What a great pair of articles. I tried to post a comment about Zara. I
    don't think it worked. You could add it for me if you want. Here's a copy.

    Wonderful article. I think I can add a little more information. I remember
    when Alexis was selling these pieces on Ebay. Her listings were
    fascinating. I wish I had kept a list of everything she sold.

    Even then, the story behind her pieces didn't add up. Some of her pieces
    were from the regular line, while others were obviously different. I
    believe that she went to the San Marcos factory in 1983, and her Dad allowed
    her to pick out the pieces she wanted. So, some of the pieces she picked
    were from the regular line, while others were experimental pieces and test
    colors that were being stored at the factory. This could help explain the
    Zara. I imagine that Alexis probably had 10 or 20 nearly identical Zaras to
    choose from. Of course she would be drawn to the one that is different.
    That's just human nature.

    As I said earlier, I found her auctions fascinating, and I would have loved
    to have bought more from her.

    I remember bidding a ridiculous amount of money on a DW Puss N Boots, that
    had a red feather in his cap. I thought he was probably a test color, but
    it didn't matter. He was different, and I didn't have a Puss N Boots in my

    When he arrived, I was terribly disappointed. He had a small hole in his
    back from exploding in the kiln. I decided to keep him regardless. Later,
    I realized that this Puss N Boots was a test mold. The walking stick was
    attached to him, instead of being a separate piece.

    I bought a couple of other pieces from Alexis, but I don't remember what
    they were. She had her parents mail them, and they came poorly wrapped and
    badly broken. The next time I bought something from her, she sent me an
    experimental Eggs & Holes piece as a gift.

    I was disappointed when her auctions suddenly stopped. She told me that she
    had more to sell.

    Thanks so much for the great article. I really enjoyed it.

    Ed Alcorn

    Thank You,


  2. What an interesting article! I never realized that there were such differences between the old and new molds of Zara.. never had an old one to compare! Are there differences in Amir and Zilla too? Now that you point it out, I can totally see it!
    Ed, in your comments, a slight correction. Alexis is not Jim's daughter, she is Mary and Eric's daughter. Eric's surname is Brazel. If Alexis were Jim's daughter she would be a Renaker.:-)