World class Australian porcelain collection to see auction light

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 4th November, 2022

If one of their daughters had not been severely allergic to the dust of Western Australian mining town Kambalda near Kalgoorlie, 1960s English migrants analytical chemist Terry Wheeler and his wife Tena might never have embarked on a collecting journey that has resulted in the assembly of a multi-million dollar Royal Worcester collection the rival of anything ever seen in the world.

Still only in their 20s and with Tena pregnant with their second daughter, the Wheelers arrived in 1967 at the town to work for Western Mining Corporation. Within 18 months they were forced to move to the Western Australian capital Perth to ensure their elder daughter’s long-term survival.

For Terry, it meant giving up a lucrative job – and finding another in the same field proved impossible.

So, taking a calculated gamble, he established an analytical laboratory for testing minerals which, by the time they sold in 2008 to an international corporation, was the largest private mining assay company in the Southern Hemisphere, employing 300 staff.

In the course of building this highly successful business the Wheelers became very wealthy in their own right.

Just by chance, they happened to become friendly with some Perth antique dealers and one day in the late 1990s attended an auction at which Royal Worcester porcelain items were for sale.

“We bought our first porcelain piece on a whim and liked it so much after that we were hooked,” Tena explained. 

Both Tena and Terry discovered they had an eye for quality Royal Worcester and, with money no object, were able to buy the best pieces – no matter where they had to travel to obtain them.

“It probably helped that I had a brother in England who I saw every year and could time those visits to coincide with porcelain sales of the leading auction houses such as Bonhams and Christie’s,” Tena said.

It is rumoured that English porcelain collectors used to blanche when Terry and Tena turned up to a London auction because they knew they would have a fight on their hands to obtain top quality pieces in the face of the wealthy Australian mining magnate willing to pay more than the going price for pieces he really wanted.

A keen follower of George Owen, a vase made for the 1893 Chicago Exposition that Terry particularly coveted and spent many years pursuing (paying an estimated $200,000 for the privilege) is reputed to be one of the finest examples of his work.

At England’s Worcester Museum, the vase is described in the preserved original invoice book for the Chicago exhibition as “Shape 1482 Vase with cover richly pierced, very rich filigree work on all plain parts, pink introduced on neck and handles, honeycomb in turquoise, rich gold beads and filigree band around the body.”

Inscribed underneath with the words “Chicago Exhibition 1893”, the vase is 15 inches (38 centimetres) high and its original price was $US907.

Tena, who is fond of Charles Baldwyn pieces, said on one occasion at Christie’s, with several other top collectors, they were invited to a dinner in the auction room with the diners surrounded by the Royal Worcester porcelain about to be auctioned.

The sales the Wheelers attended over the 25 years they have been collecting reads like a Who’s Who of English auction houses and dealers including Walker Barnett & Hill, Lyon & Turnbull, Hutchinson Scott, McTears Edinburgh, David Main and Peter Marsh.

In Australia, Leonard Joel and Elders were instrumental in adding to their collection – along with Melbourne auctioneer Phil Caldwell who in 2002 handled the sale of the famous Wales collection.

Not only did they collect the best Royal Worcester, but both Terry and Tena were keenly interested in its history – visiting the Worcester Museum on several occasions.

A water colourist with a penchant for painting birds, Tena confesses to be fascinated with the process porcelain artists use to obtain the right decorative colours after a particular piece has been fired in the kiln.

“It takes great knowledge and skill to get this right because the colours you start with are not those you end up with after the firing process,” she said.

Like many a successful collecting story, however, all good things must come to an end and for the Wheelers, who are now in their 80s, selling their large Perth family home to move into a smaller and more manageable house is the telling signal.

“Our four daughters are now all in their 50s and are not interested in keeping the collection,” Tena said, “so it is time to sell as we won’t be able to display it properly where we are going.”

Accordingly, they have asked Phil Caldwell to auction online some 90 pieces of their collection, including the Chicago vase, in their Perth home from 11am Sunday November 13.

Although the entire collection is beauteous to behold, eye catching and important is a pair of 15.1-inch (39 cm) high urn shaped lidded vases (lot 54) each superbly painted by famous Worcester artist Harry Davis and displayed in the illustrated Royal Worcester Porcelain book.

Other Davis creations include a circa 1898 22-inch (56 cm) unique Royal Worcester lidded, two-handled vase with a continuous Icelandic scene featuring two polar bears (lot 61) and a c1927 coffee set beautifully decorated with London scenes.

Another George Owen piece is a c1908 exquisite and very rare shaped Royal Worcester miniature (lot 37), demonstrating the artist’s trademark piercing, modelled as a deep bowl on a pedestal foot with high domed cover, set on an integral square base.

Charles Baldwyn has three offerings – a c1906 very rare Royal Worcester vase and cover beautifully painted with four rabbits in a woodland setting, a c1900 two-handled pot-pourrie and cover showing seagulls in flight over a turbulent sea against a pale blue sky (lot 1) – and a c1890 very rare exhibition quality plaque with thrush and fledglings among the thistles (lot 31).

Also exquisite is a set of 12 Royal Worcester green ground plates with exceptional gilding, each featuring a painting by William Hawkins – along with a unique portrait of 1805 Battle of Trafalgar hero Admiral Lord Nelson (lot 74).

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