UPDATE: The wall plaque sold for £1,350.
"The little ceramic wall plaque was lying in the grass underneath one stall and my husband walked past without giving it a second glance," said the woman, a local government officer who asked not to be named.
"I was following on behind and it caught my eye when I looked down, so I picked it up. I didn’t think much of it at first, but when I turned it over, I saw the name ‘PenDelfin’..
"There was no price on it, so I asked the stallholder how much she wanted for it and she said ‘£2.50’. I offered her £2 and bought it just like that.
"When we got home, we looked it up on the Internet but couldn’t find anything about it. The
PenDelfin factory was in Burnley, so we went to the library there and found three specialist PenDelfin books in the reference section. While we were looking through one of them, we came across a picture of the very same plaque. It was really exciting because the book said it was very rare."
By chance, the book contained an advertisement for Nantwich, Cheshire auctioneers Peter Wilson, who have achieved high prices for the collectable nurseryware pottery, best known for its families of rabbits. Ceramics specialist Chris Large confirmed the rarity of the eight-inch diameter plaque and it will be sold in a Peter Wilson sale on Thursday February 19.
Chris Large said: "PenDelfin ware was the creation of a Burnley woman, Jean Walmsley Heap. She died last October and there has been a revival of interest among collectors for rare pieces such as this wall plaque.
"Its official name is the Pixie House plaque, and it was introduced in 1953 – the first year of PenDelfin production – and withdrawn in 1958, so not many were made. It is not known how many survive today, but they are very rare. We expect the sale to create a great deal of interest, both in this country and in America and Canada, where there are large contingents of PenDelfin collectors."
Jean Walmsley Heap started her artistic life with a yearning to become a children’s book illustrator. As a schoolgirl aged 10, she began selling pictures to friends and relations to raise money to buy a wooden hut "to live and paint in" but her parents persuaded her to open her first studio under the stairs of her Burnley home. A scholarship to Burnley School of Art followed where she studied under the distinguished painter Noel H. Leaver ARCA. However, a paper shortage during the war prevented her from achieving her ambition.
The PenDelfin business was formed in 1953 at Pendle just outside Burnley. Jean met Jeannie Todd while attending an exhibition of paintings being staged by Burnley Artists’ Society, and they became close friends and decided to go into business together.
The two women each contributed £5 as working capital and with the garden shed as company HQ, the entrepreneurs began by making Christmas gifts for friends. Jean modelled the figures – at first pixies, elves and Pendle witches – from clay and Jeannie boiled rubber on the kitchen cooker to make moulds. However, the hobby quickly became a full-time business employing many staff.
The family of mischievous rabbits first appeared in 1955. Father Rabbit was first and production continued creating a steady stream of attractive and highly collectable creations that were soon sitting on mantelshelves and in children’s bedrooms around the world.
The sale, at Peter Wilson’s Victorian Gallery in Market Street, Nantwich is on view from Sunday February 15 (2-4pm); Monday February 16 (10am-7pm) and Tuesday and Wednesday February 17-18 (10am-4pm).
For further information, please contact Chris Large, telephone 01270 623878.