With around half a billion domesticated cats in the world today, it is no surprise that so many cat-loving owners (AKA slaves and worshippers) like to collect ornaments or pictures which represent their furry darlings.
But this is nothing new. The first feline antiques were made in Ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago. An alabaster jar with lion decoration from the tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in the 1920s, has been dated to 1323 BC.
A great many Egyptian figures of Bastet, the cat goddess (of war), have been discovered. They are often made of bronze and date from the first millennia BC. These are so common they are often not as pricey as their age would suggest (£2000 will get you a nice bronze Bastet 3000 years old). Many museums have nice collections to go and see (the third floor of the British Museum is the place to go when you’re in London!)
Mummified cats were also found in Egypt in their hundreds of thousands. So many were discovered that whole shiploads were transported to Britain to be ground up and used as fertiliser to spread on fields in the 19th century when Egypt was a British protectorate. Even though Egyptians are famous for worshipping cats, what they were really worshipping was the goddess who possessed their soul, so many mummified cats show broken necks when X-rayed – meaning they were killed and sacrificed to Bastet.
More expensive for the serious collector are 18th century porcelain figures of cats by makers such as Meissen, Derby, Minton and others. These often sell at auction for well over £1500, and often for as much as £3-4000. It is the rarity and condition of a particular antique that sells at this level. Supply and demand sets the price, though it’s fair to say cats usually make less than dogs or horses at the high level of antiques.
Other cat collectables that can cost a fortune are early 1920s advertising figures featuring characters such as Felix the Cat. I have a match holder featuring a cat which is probably for Black Cat cigarettes, a popular brand until the 1960s, but that cost me around £5. Collecting cat items does not have to break the bank!
I also own two black glass perfume bottles made in the 1920s in Czechoslovakia. These represent ‘Ooloo the cat’ who was a companion created for Bonzo the dog, a cartoon character of the 1920s. One is damaged so worth only £18, but that is fine as they make a nice pair. A good tip for anyone wanting items to display only, rather than to be a serious antique collector, is to buy damaged goods – often the chips are so small or at the back or side so cannot even be seen in a display. The good condition perfume bottle is worth around £60 or more.
Art is a huge field, and the most expensive cat painting can cost huge sums, but inexpensive prints and watercolours of cats are widely available too. Paintings and drawings by artists such as Louis Wain, never a favourite of mine, can make a fortune. He sadly went insane in his later years and thought he actually was a cat (and I think one can see that coming in some of his paintings!)
Of course, no-one has to spend so much money to own affordable cat collectables. I often pick up cat ornaments from cat boot fairs (yard sales in the USA) and flea markets for a pound or sometimes much less – 10 or 20 pence is not unusual for a small ornament. Charity shops (thrift stores in the USA) are often also good places in which to have a rummage.
I bought a pair of cat and dog brass bookends (which had come from a pub in the Welsh valleys that was closing down) for £5 and a brass paperweight featuring a cat above a pile of books which is hiding a mouse for the same amount. Brass is very unpopular these days, possibly because no-one can be bothered with polishing it anymore, so there are plenty of bargains to be had as often these mid-20th-century brass items are sold for scrap value.
Fans of jewellery can also grab a bargain at flea markets and antique fairs. I bought the three brooches in the photos (two marcasite and one pewter) for £2 each.
The most valuable ‘catique’ I own is a large Staffordshire pottery figure from around 1870. I bought this recently for £70, even though figurines are not usually ‘my thing’ at all, simply because I adored the aloof look on the cat’s face. If I can ever find a pair for this, the pair together would be worth around £300. I shall keep my eyes peeled…
I also collect bronzes, and cold-painted bronzes by Franz Bergman from early 20th century Austria are in great demand and can cost many hundreds of pounds, depending on condition (though there are also lots of reproductions from the early-mid 10th century about). Bergman produced a great many animal bronzes (I have several lions, lionesses, tigers and even an ibex). I bought my own cold-painted bronze cat for £50, though it has no stamp (which often says NAMGREB which is ‘Bergman’ backwards), though many Bergman pieces were never stamped with a maker’s name. One can always tell bronze (a mix of copper and tin) because it is much heavier than brass (copper and zinc) or spelter (lead-based alloy).
I am unsure if my figure of a cat marked RONNER PARIS 1892 is genuine or a reproduction – but as I bought it for only £7, I’m happy either way! Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909) was a Dutch-Belgian artist best known for her cat paintings. If it is genuine it’s worth £200 and more if I add a marble or alabaster base. I bought another hollow bronze cat figure, which is probably the modern equivalent of all those Ancient Egyptian Bastet figures for a mere £10. So collecting cat-themed items need not be expensive at all.
As all interested in antiques and collectables know, collecting anything can be horribly addictive. But it need not cost a fortune. Decorating your home with a variety of cat-themed ornaments and art can cost very little indeed if you pick up bargains at car boot sales, flea markets and charity shops. Happy hunting!
Jem is the author of A Cat Called Dog - read a review here
and a child-friendly version here
You can find Jem on Twitter here: @ACatCalledDog