Monday, November 18, 2013

Muddy Monday: A Zara of Two Tales

If you have been reading this blog from the early posts, you probably have an idea where this one is going. As in A Tale of Two Zaras, it's going to be rife with photos of a paradoxically unattractive example of one of the most beautiful horse sculptures ever designed. Caution: this may cause some discomfort or cringing. If you have a Hagen-Renaker #B-655 large Zara of any description, vintage or reissue, this will probably make you appreciate yours more, and give you a glimpse into the process. 

It was the best of molds, it was the worst of decoration.

OK, she's rather pretty in this photograph. And, as usual, I absolutely love this piece, and I am so enthused to share my interpretation of her process artifacts with you. 

First, a bit about the provenance, which gives a context for how this piece was made. This unique Zara originated from a collection found in an attic, in a forgotten box, after the rest of the household had been cleared out, and the owners were gone. In that same box, there were some very crisp examples of Monrovia horses, although they were not all perfect factory examples. One was a DW Lippizaner with bisque firing-warped legs, no eye decoration, shading wiped off a foreleg, and a ceramic base mold not known to be produced by the factory. The current owner told me that a longtime HR restorer recognized the glaze on the base as HR factory. 

Photo and model courtesy Ed Alcorn.

It's pretty clear that the Lippizaner was a factory second, probably rescued by an HR employee because of his lovely mold detail. It seems less likely to have been a retail purchase from a box of sold-by-the-pound factory seconds, because it (and the others) all have their limbs. You can just imagine what happened to legs when these things were thrown into boxes! The fact that the base is ceramic, with a hole to fit the Lippizaner's peg, in a factory glaze, also points to a factory employee. It seems like a lot of bother for a home ceramist/hobbyist with a purchased factory second, although that is a possibility to keep in mind.

Ed Alcorn purchased the entire attic collection, and advertised a few of the normal Monrovia models for sale on the breakables yahoogroup. At the end of his sales list, nearly a post-script:

"I also have a large glossy white Zara that is a faker that I plan to sell.  I don’t know what to ask but I would listen to any offers.  Shipping is extra."

Of course, this description caught my eye. I collect copies of HRs, and I am building a comparison group of authentic HR Zaras. In the collecting world, this is fondly referred to as a "conga line" of one mold. Ed sent the Zara photos on request, and even sent some of the Lippizaner for interpretation. I picked my jaw up off my desk, and told him what I thought the Zara really was, based on what I could see in the photos: a real factory second, customized by an employee. He still wanted this Zara to go to my collection, so PayPal was sent, and the rest is history. She arrived well packed, in a custom-cut foam double-box, just a couple days later. I'd like to say a big "Thank You" to Ed for this piece!

What else could she be, besides a real HR horse? How do we know she's not a fake?

Excerpt from Shirmar order sheet.
Image from Benuish 1, originally from the files of Nancy Falzone.

Decades ago, and for a very short time, a company called "Shirmar" made unglazed castings of several HR DW molds, including large Zara. They were identical in size to HR's finished products because the HR foreman provided Shirmar with the HR molds, and his personal permission, to make them. This was done without consulting the Renakers, and they subsequently requested all the molds back. 2

This explains why no generational size loss has been recorded in Shirmars; they were all first gen. Some were allegedly plaster castings, but some were cast in ceramic and fired to bisque. I have handled a Shirmar that was identified in one HR book as plaster, but it was actually bisque. Collector Laura Behning had a complete family set of Shirmar's renditions of Amir, Zara, and Zilla, and confirmed that they were hollow ceramic, not plaster. 

Shirmar's castings were made for the hobby painting market, just as holiday-themed white bisque and plaster sculptures are sold today, by craft supply shops. However, a telltale sign of a bisque Shirmar is a huge, unplugged pour hole in the belly.

I popped the contrast on this Shirmar photo, so you can see the roughness of the body.
HRs were produced with greater care.

Several HR molds are known to have been copied by ceramic hobby mold companies, such as Duncan, so there might very well be home-cast Zaras out in the world. If a large Zara hobby mold exists, these would be a mold generation removed, and thus would be noticeably smaller and lacking detail.

Duncan casting mold copies of the HR DW Mule and the HR Miniatures line Arabian stallion.
Original packaging of a Duncan copycat mold.
It is unknown if a large Zara copy mold exists, but they copied the 6" small walking Zara.

In Monrovia, Zara was produced in two colors: white gray and rose gray. The slip base color for the white was white, and the rose gray had a tinted slip. The unsightly pour holes were plugged and smoothed over; then, a small hole was cut, to allow gas transfer from the hollow body, during firings. In Monrovia Zara, this was usually on the underside of the chest, between the forelegs. A good way to tell if a Zara was cast at HR, is to compare both her standing height and belly with a real HR Zara.

This appears to have been cast at the HR factory, and is clearly not a Shirmar bisque. What would prevent a casting from being decorated and completed at HR?

Demolding, or pulling a damp clay casting from a mold, can result in small twists, warps, tugs, and other flaws to the soft material. The legitimate HR Monrovia white Zara, in the foreground, has one tipped-forward and shortened ear that apparently was considered not enough of a flaw to hold her back. The other white casting, however, has two tipped ears. 

Depending on when the flaw was caught in the process, and on how dry the casting was at demolding, there is a narrow timeframe where tugged or tipped ears can be corrected, without the clay disintegrating from a re-wetting, or breaking off entirely. Speed was important, and one would not want to spend 30 minutes slowly re-wetting ears just to soften them back to a posable texture... or another 30 for adding slip, letting it dry, and re-sculpting new ear tips, entirely!

What other factory process artifacts can back up the provenance that this was a Monrovia factory second?

1. Factory worker engraved initials in hoof soles. It's normal for HRs of the same mold to have initials that are on all different hooves, or even duplicate on the same horse.

2. Specks in the white slip body. Same colors of specks and same size/concentration... very likely the same slip formula. These specks also indicate that we are looking at the naked white slip under clear glaze, and not white underglaze sprayed over a greenware body, then glossed. Also, not dipped in white art glaze (like the unicorn at the top of this blog).

3. Characteristics of the gloss glaze.

Why is the glossy more yellow than than the legit matte white? 

HR gloss glaze often had a slight yellow tinge to it, and this can be seen in the deeper detail areas of a Monrovia glossy anything. It's possible that the yellow tint of their clear gloss glaze varied from batch to batch, perhaps with each stirring, and age or contamination of the vat. Because Zara in Monrovia only came in matte, there are no other glossy examples of this mold and factory era to compare. The best I can do is show you how her gloss clear glaze compares to known Monrovia gloss white horses. Interesting how these guys also have starkly decorated hooves.

The Miniature Draft Horse in harness, and the plumed head-up circus pony (mate to pony above) were made at the same time as white Monrovia Zara. The plumed head-down circus pony preceded Zara by a year, but remains a good comparison because the same decoration was used on the head-up circus pony. Consider what a short time Monrovia white Zara was made, then appreciate this tight sample of her contemporaries.

Monrovia white Zara: 1957, spring 1958
Monrovia white draft in harness: 1957
Monrovia plumed head-up circus pony: Fall 1955- spring 1957
Monrovia plumed head-down circus pony: Fall 1955-Spring 1956

Between the timeline and the side-by-side comparison, wow.

Monrovia did not issue large Zara in gloss, but San Marcos did. How do we know this isn't a San Marcos gloss white Zara? Besides the fact that she came out of a legacy box of 1950's Monrovia horses, the white gloss here is from the original old mold version, not the retooled 1980's San Marcos mold (palomino example).

The Palomino shows how a San Marcos belly is plugged and ventilated in the groin.
The SM test Liver's belly was done exactly like this Palomino.

Finally, a San Dimas bay Zara belly, with a medium-size, unplugged pour hole.
Photo and model courtesy Jo Ellen Arnold.

Another San Dimas bay ("brown") Zara, so you know it's not a fluke.
Photo and model courtesy Ed Alcorn.

The Palomino and test Liver Chestnut gloss show the typical San Marcos age and glaze fit crackle pattern. 
The white gloss is crackled far more than these. Her crackle looks like the two Monrovia gloss minis.

Why gloss? HR had both clear matte and clear gloss glaze vats in use during Monrovia. An employee making their own custom on a second-quality body would only have to dryfoot the model, dunk in the glaze vat of their choice, set the piece on a kiln shelf for the glaze firing, and collect their treasure after the kiln cooled. I'm guessing that to make a Zara different and satisfy the customizing urge, one would choose the gloss, without a second thought. It is the simplest way to make a Zara unique from her dozens of twin sisters.

Couldn't a home ceramist have purchased hobby gloss glaze, and home-fired a bisque second? Yes. But, how would this person have acquired a bisque second, if they were not a factory employee? I haven't heard of bisque seconds being sold by the factory, only glazed seconds to a few dealers. A few (some with seams intact!) bisques have made it to collector hands via reps/dealers, the sale of the San Marcos factory inventory, HR book authors, and Marney Walerius (via Breyer). These sources seem unlikely for this particular Zara, boxed up who-knows-how-long, from a collection of Monrovia. 

Another thought: If you were an employee, why go to the bother to tediously hand-brush on glaze and fire at home (if you have a kiln), when you can just dip and fire at work, where factory customs on seconds were not discouraged? There are quite a few examples of factory employee customs in collector hands, finished inside the factory, using factory materials.

Down to the distilled point: I have never seen another glossy Monrovia large Zara. If you have one, please speak up.

Now, let's examine the odd decoration on the hooves, eyes, ears, and nostrils. It has a dulled surface, but does not peel up under the fingernail, like one might expect of unfired, cold paints. It feels like it was swiped over the top of the glaze. It is obvious the material was unsuccessful in this application, because it's all swirly and runny.

There was a drip of this on the side of the body, where I attempted to remove it with water, rubbing alcohol, and brisk rubbing. It would not budge. If it was dirt or cold paint, this would have come right off.

I then caught a glimmer of mother of pearl luster, on a hoof. It shows in the photo above as a smattering of pale aqua. This stuff was overglaze decoration. It appears it either was not fired at the correct temperature, not applied in the correct amount, or it was a formula that became contaminated. It is very easy to contaminate a luster by reusing brushes or cleaning fluid that was used with any other color of overglaze, ever, in its life. I don't think it was a glaze incompatibility, because so many other pieces were perfectly overglazed with this clear gloss.

Now, I am wracking my brain, trying to recall if any Monrovia HRs ever were produced with mother-of-pearl overglaze. I can't think of a single one! Was the material ever on hand at the factory in that era? Many post-Monrovia products were produced with this effect, applied and fired successfully. If nothing in Monrovia had mother-of-pearl, then I would say at least the overglazing was done at home by the employee, or the overglaze was brought from home. It might have fired in a factory overglaze load, but I'm not sure if that would not have been yet another risk of cross-contamination from the fumes of the heating overglazes.

If one was going to do a fantasy finish, mother-of-pearl-accented Zara, it makes sense that one would eschew the gray underglaze shading. Realism is not the aim, here. There is a certain decorative purity aesthetic of white with pearl (as shown on the Love mystery horse A-9). Gray shading with mother-of-pearl on top, especially the eyes, would not have been a good look. Perhaps, I should say, it would be a significantly worse look.

Have you ever seen anything like this horse?

From a faker, to the only gloss Monrovia Zara, to a factory custom... this one may have more than two tales to tell.


Behning, Laura. Pers. comm. email January 10, 2012.

1. Benuish, Alison, ed. Hagen-Renaker Research Materials: 1949- Present. N. pag. Salisbury, MD: WMHC, 1995.

2. Berkwitz, Joan, et al. The Hagen-Renaker Handbook. p. 72. Self-published. Carlsbad, CA: 1989.

Roller, Gayle. Hagen-Renaker: A Charlton Standard Catalogue. Third Edition. Pp. 69, 294, 296. The Charlton Press: Palm Harbor, FL, 2003. 


  1. Outstanding detective work, Kristina! Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Hi Kristina,
    This article is another great example of your excellent detective work.
    I do wonder about the product used to decorate the gloss Zara's hooves. My mom was doing some hobby ceramics during the same time period those legacy pieces were made. Mom's interest was all about glazing and decorating techniques.
    One of the popular products at the time was a glaze which fired to a swirled or mottled finish. Your close up photo of Zara's hooves looks exactly like that. It is easy to imagine an employee bringing a small pot of hobby glaze to decorate her personal treasure.

    Janet Hicks

    1. Thank you, both! This one just kept revealing more and more fun stuff, the more I looked at it.

      Janet, that is great input on the swirly glaze, especially being the right timeframe.