Beast Friends: Animal Figurines Worth Collecting

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 16, 2015. Read the original version online here.

To an outside observer, it must have looked strange when I decided to go to wild Namibia in the summer of 2009. I’d spent the previous two years as an unhappy securities lawyer in London, so with the financial recession roiling markets and my firm announcing a coming round of layoffs, I figured it was a good time for a career change. And when I heard about a three-week volunteering program at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation, I knew I had to go.

My decision wasn’t as random as it sounds. Growing up, I’d begun collecting animal figurines that my parents gave me and, more dramatically, I’d made regular visits to my family’s ranch three hours north of San Antonio, where we had an “exotic pasture” that held zebras, oryx, ostriches and other African wildlife. (It isn’t uncommon for private ranches in Texas to have these animals, because the terrain is similar to their native habitats.) But I’d never seen them in their natural environment, and I admittedly felt nervous during the four-hour ride from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, to the remote 25,000-square-foot cattle-ranch-turned-sanctuary.

The work wasn’t particularly glamorous—I was one of 50-odd volunteers who looked after baboons, vervet monkeys and the occasional giraffe. My group was also responsible for feeding a group of young lion cubs (they still weighed close to 100 pounds), all of whom were adorable, but spoiled, and swatted and snarled when we’d try to distract them while switching out the bowls of horse meat at meal time.

My favorite big cat was Pride, one of four young orphaned cheetahs. Sometimes the group took her on “bush walks,” hourlong forays into open tracts of bush where she practiced sprinting. She became so accustomed to people, she sometimes acted like a house cat. When I’d visit her, she’d curl up next to me and sometimes contentedly sprawl out right on top of my chest.

After I moved back to the U.S., I began to accumulate animal-related objects in earnest—little mementos such as elephant pillowcases from Kenya to go along with the cat-themed Limoges boxes my mom began giving me when I was 5, and the four-inch-long Herend figurines from Scully & Scully that my father bought on visits to Manhattan. As a child, I loved their fishnet patterning, which goes back to 1858, when a painter in Herend, Hungary, became inspired by a similar design he saw on a Chinese porcelain plate and used it to imitate the feathers on a rooster figurine.

As it turns out, Chinese animal designs are highly valued by collectors these days, said Steven Wolf, owner of antiques shop Bardith on New York’s Upper East Side. He singled out an “exceptionally well modeled” ram, originally thought to be from the 17th-century Kangxi period in China because of its single-color palette.

The more I looked, I found animal figurines that went far beyond the ornate Staffordshire ceramics you might find in a shop full of sentimental china tchotchkes. Robert Navarro, a collector who runs an eponymous gallery in Toronto, has a menagerie of stereotype-busting animal-themed sculptures in his shop and at home, including an intricately detailed Murano glass lion by 20th century Italian glass artist Archimede Seguso.

Likewise, Massachusetts antiques dealer Andrew Spindler, “a lifelong accumulator and serial collector,” owns painted cast-iron cat andirons, a rubber hippopotamus and a green rhinoceros that he likes for very simple reasons: “They are whimsical and comforting, don’t you think?”

James Infante, a New York dealer who focuses on Art Deco objects, is fond of a bull designed by Karl Hagenauer in his Austrian workshop in 1928. “The size is monumental,” said Mr. Infante of the 24-inch-long piece. “It’s very rare for such a large object to have been carved from one piece of wood,” he said. “And it’s unique to have that simplicity of design.”

Two years ago, knowing how much I missed Pride, my parents gave me an 11-by-6½-inch bronze sculpture of a cheetah, one that is another example of simplified design—no trademark spots, though the material has acquired a subtle patina over time. It’s by Dutch artist Loet Vanderveen, who, before the Germans bombed his hometown of Rotterdam in 1940, spent his free time at the local zoo, where keepers let him feed a lion cub. “My goal is to create realistic shapes with minimum detail,” said Mr. Vanderveen, who now maintains a studio in Big Sur, Calif.

My cheetah is a far cry from the more realistic sculptures of bucking broncos created by populist artists such as Frederic Remington. But it’s a daily reminder of my second and final trip to Harnas—when Pride ran past a dozen of the new volunteers to greet me with a loud purr and licks to my face, 15 months after I’d last seen her.