Something that is hard to grasp about pieces that fall into the "gray areas" of provenance or collectibility is Intent of Purpose. In my opinion, this should be considered before one runs with an assumption about whether or not an unmarked piece is a legitimate test, and competes it as such. It doesn't matter if you want the piece to be a test or not. What matters is, what did the factory that produced it consider it to be? What did the factory intend to learn or achieve with this item?
How the producer's intended purpose for an individual ceramic item affects what we call it today, where it shows, and its value when it is resold.
Today's model horse potteries are careful to mark all their tests clearly, in pigment beneath the glaze, on the hoof soles, or with fired-on glaze decals. These potteries are run by people with at least a working knowledge of the model horse hobby and show definitions. They know how important it is to mark such rare items clearly, even if they do not foresee these items leaving their archives or reaching collector hands in their lifetime.
Pour Horse Pottery "Suspiro"
Left: a marked test, with my name because I was the one who wanted to know
if a "contrasty" bay could be achieved in our glazes!
On the right, a marked glaze custom with the name "Pour Horse",
because it was intended to be the company's donation to a benefit auction.
This came out a second, so it was replaced with a perfect and identical custom donation.
Normally, customs from this factory bear the decorator's name,
and occasionally a "©PHP" because they own the sculpture design.
In recent years, Hagen-Renaker has taken to marking tests clearly. This helps build collector excitement for them, and ensures correct recognition of special items, for generations to come. There are still occasional unmarked tests, perhaps doing double-duty as Dealer Samples?
On the left is a normal reissue Sespe Violette in dapple gray.
On the right is a test mulberry (aka "white") with iridescent dark teal ribbons.
Did any other reissues come with this ribbon color?
She lacks a number and has no test mark, but has excellent provenance.
A year later, that excellent provenance was backed up by found paper documentation.
Vintage factory tests, be they HR or any other pottery, may or may not be marked. I have seen a vintage HR glaze test marked only with the serial number of the underglaze or slip tint color used on it. Most of the HR vintage tests I have seen have no marking. I know of three (maybe four) vintage tests with factory stickers.
Decorator or Greenware Assembly Samples
Some smaller studio potteries may re-purpose a test as the decorator's work station guide. Pour Horse Pottery and my own pottery did this. The test would be used as the guide, unless new techniques changed the edition (it's another way variants happen).
Some Miniatures pieces were glazed onto HR Lilypads and sent as Samples for Dealers. The hard base would be more durable than a standard HR paper card, and could be easier for transporting to shops and giftware shows. An article in a collector newsletter (I will post reference, when I locate it again) said a dealer glued samples to smoothed (vein-less) brown Lilypads for his/her own use. These were later recalled by the factory, according to that report. Here is one that is very certainly glazed to the beige veined Lilypad, not glued. I even checked for glue edges with a blade. It was most likely done by the factory, with the intent of being a Dealer's Sample. In fact, that is this piece's provenance, at time of sale from a collector.
Dealer's Sample HR Miniatures Donkey Baby mold # A-021
Sculpted by Helen Farnlund.
Lilypad is not smooth.
Not all Dealer's Samples are as obviously different or marked. This was purchased direct from the dealer, and at slightly higher price than her regular pieces, because it was her only sample. It bears no marking.
Again, the producer's intent is what matters: neither of these samples were intended for retail.
Prototypes for molding
In the case of modern potteries, these may be made of green or brown plastilina (oil-based clay), Plasti-Carve wax, brown foundry wax, Castilene, or resin.
PlastiCarve HR guinea pig.
Mold Tests and Security Bisques
The HR mold security bisques are sometimes confused with the mold-numbered sample bisques that were submitted to Breyer in 1974.
The way mold test bisques were described to me is that these are the first castings poured in the first production mold. They are white bisque, even if the final product is produced in a tinted slip. These castings tell the moldmaker if he or she has made a production-line-friendly mold, and where any pulls or errors may be located. The mold security or "insurance" bisques serve another purpose: if something happens to the master block-and-case that generates the production molds, the bisque can then be pulled from the archives and remolded. This has occurred at least a couple times in HR history. Think of these bisques as safety nets for each design. Depending on the factory, at least one, and up to several copies of the same design, may be archived.
Pour Horse Pottery "Suspiro" mold security bisque, out of the waste mold.
The rusty marks are where brown plastilina residue remained in the waste mold,
and adhered to him when he was poured.
Custom Glazes Outside the Factory and Employee/Factory Customs
This is a very important type of model to distinguish from tests. These, in my opinion, should not show as, nor be sold as, tests. There are whole divisions at model horse shows that welcome custom glazes; they have a place. Happily, current potteries mark their customs clearly, to avoid accidental misidentification. A collector who has paid for a test on the secondary market, only to find out from the factory that it is a custom instead, is not a happy collector. Today's potteries, with the perspective of history, mark pieces clearly to avoid this.
This is an example of a vintage non-factory Custom Glaze on a white Ferseyn. Note how the artist imitated a San Dimas eye decoration.
Dapple gray custom glaze Ferseyn by a collector (Mary Ann Black).
Note the glazed/pigmented initials and year, on hoof.
"Are there vintage custom glazes finished in factories, or are you just trying to scare me?" Oh, yes, I was present when a factory moldmaker, and later, Jim Renaker himself, described certain pieces as custom orders, or playful experiments, but not tests.
HR vintage factory custom glaze
The intent is the big difference: if the factory does not intend to reproduce it, or see if it can be produced, it is not a test for production. That's pretty much the cut-and-dried reason tests ever exist: to try out a potential for the production line. Some of the custom items that leap to my mind were heavily, intricately detailed by free-hand airbrushing, a technique that would not have been efficient or affordable for a whole production run. Such decoration would have been completely unreasonable for mass production, without the use of modern masking techniques. Sometimes, a potter just wants to know if something can be done at all, for fun.
A glaze color that was originally a custom, but is repeated later on a whole edition of a mold, has a double provenance. The factory's initial intent is what is important, here; a model should be sold/competed as the identity marked by the factory. Only in very specific situations, where direct evidence can be shown that the producer went back and enlisted that exact model as a guide to produce an edition, is it appropriate to also mention that the model is a test. There is no room in today's serious collecting world for selling pieces as "I think this was not just a custom, but a test, because I saw a similar color/pattern later on X edition." If you have it in writing from the factory, if the source of the model was the factory archives (where tests reside), and/or compelling photographs, you can build a case for it being a test + custom.
Fortunately, today's market is about equally strong for glaze customs as it is for tests. Between these two, there is limited monetary incentive to ignore the maker's intent. Both are high dollar items, now. This was not the case years ago, when values flip-flopped between the two. Of course, mistaking a lesser-value production run for a pricey test or custom will quickly be caught by sharp eyes, so there is no point or reward in falsifying collectibility designation.
"This one has a little bit [bigger/fewer/more] spots, it must be a test!" No. The HR books and this blog have shown many examples of how wide variations can range.
"This one has initials carved in the hooves, it must be a test!" No. Many vintage models have employee initials. There will be a whole post about these, in the future.
Devil's advocate: "What if it is vintage piece that is totally weird?" Generally speaking, there is some kind of paper trail, eBay auction forum thread, or collector familiarity with the exact unusual piece in question, because this is a small world. Some pieces can be easily traced back to a specific factory employee. Some are dealer estate sale finds. Some can be traced back to an infamous counterfeiter. An eye for production and materials, and interpreting factory artifacts on the piece, will help you determine a lot before you reach the documentation-hunting phase.
They are out there. Searches on the breakables yahoogroup will yield some discussions of fake tests on vintage bodies. There is a report of reglazed or retouched eyes of (at the time) less valuable San Dimas mini horses to pass them off as (at the time) more valuable Monrovia. Suffice to say, HR never used a sponge to apply overglazes/glass paint/ underglaze on top of an otherwise normal, completed, airbrushed, glazed horse. Knowledge of factory techniques for each product line can help guard against making an expensive identification mistake. If you have a suspected fake, feel free to contact me privately. I may be able to direct you to those who can identify it, or I can help interpret it from photos.