Directors of the world-famous Meissen porcelain works here say the East German, U.S. and Canadian governments are now involved in negotiations to arrange for the first display in North American cities of almost 270 years of hand-crafted porcelain treasures tucked away in vaults and museums here.
If the negotiations are successful, the display in 1981 would amount to a follow-up to the highly successful "Splendors of Dresden," an exhibit of five centuries of art that drew millions of American visitors when it toured several U.S. cities, including Washington, last year and this.
It also would be another step in expanding cultural relations between the two countries and, for East Germany, may also mean some good business.
Meissen is the oldest and, in the view of many people, the most important, influential, exquisite-and expensive-European porcelain.
Each year, between April and November, 320,000 persons come to this small city just north of Dresden to visit the Meissen Museum. There are not many Americans among them.
Mostly, the visitors are East Germans who may love to look but, in one of many paradoxes about life in Eastern Europe today, are not allowed to buy what may well be their country's most famous product.
Meissen Porcelain, with the famous crossed blue Saxon swords as its trademark, is for "export only." That means, directors say, the famous figures, coffee and dinner sets that are turned out here can be sold only abroad for hard, Western currency.
Demand for the porcelain, particularly dinner sets-which cost thousands of dollars and are currently the hottest item-is rising steadily, according to Joachim Schulz, a director of the plant. But production cannot be increased much because there is just so much talent capable of making the finely sculpted and painted pieces. A modest new Meissen coffee cup costs more than $100.
Some 1,200 people work here, and they usually stay for their entire working lives-30 years being the average employment at the factory.
Each year, 50 apprentice painters and bossierers-people who assemble the sculpted figures-are chosen from about 350 applicants.
The artists must know at least 36 basic floral designs just to apply, and eventually they learn to paint 300 different flowers that grace the vases, pitchers and cups of Meissen's products. It is the colors, however, that lend the porcelain its extra dimension of beauty. "That is our greatest secret," says Schulz of the composition of paints used here. "It's like Coca-Cola."
It was here, in 1710, that the porcelain plant, the oldest of its kind in Europe, was formulated when alchemist Johann Boettger, looking for a way to make gold, discovered instead how to make first brown, and then white, porcelain of special quality.
The Dresden exhibit that toured the U.S. included some Meissen porcelain, but only up to about 1750. The new exhibit being planned will reflect the entire history of the product, from its very beginnings through the Baroque and Rococo periods that marked its artistic high points, to the modern designs that continue to have such wide appeal.
Many of these pieces, including some now in the museum here for the first time since 1933, have never been seen outside East Germany. The display is an attempt to recreate a dinner setting for 10 as it existed in the Saxonian court of princes that ruled this region in the early 18th century.
The table setting, dominated by massive yet delicately sculpted ornamental centerpieces, is worth about $1 million, museum directors estimate. Still the table is really too wide for eating and the serving pieces don't have lids which meant the table probably was used for display rather than eating.
"They probably ate in the kitchen," said Schultz.