It’s a good thing that Bob Arace likes birds, since he’s practically surrounded by them, both at home, and at work at the Boehm Porcelain Showroom in Trenton. Arace says he and his wife, Barbara, have seven parakeets who reside in a special room at his home in Florence. (They started with two, and things took off from there.) At work as managing partner of the Boehm Showroom in Trenton, Arace enjoys guiding visitors through the exhibits of exquisite porcelain birds, many of which were designed by Edward Marshall Boehm himself (1913-1969). The porcelain birds are so lifelike you expect them to burst into song.
In fact, in 1959, when Pope John XXIII was presented with the Boehm sculpture titled “Cerulean Warblers with Wild Roses,” he exclaimed, “One hesitates to go too close for fear the birds might fly away.”
From splendid birds of prey such as bald eagles, great horned owls, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, to shorebirds like pelicans and terns, to smaller avians like robins, wrens, goldfinches, and enchanting hummingbirds, E.M. Boehm had an innate connection with the birds, an ability to observe them intently and then craft them with astonishing detail.
“He really had a feel for the birds — look into their eyes and you can almost read their thoughts,” Arace says.
But the faces and feathers of the birds are not the only amazing details you’ll find in these pieces. For example, get closer to one of the hummingbirds, and you will see lady bugs within the foliage.
In another piece called “The Common Tern,” we see the sharp orange beak, the jet black “cap,” and the aerodynamic body these shore birds are known for. Look again, and you’ll discover a hatchling emerging from an egg, and the eggs have the exact color, sheen, and specks you would find in nature.
These intricate works of porcelain nearly became relics of history, as the financially ailing Boehm showroom closed to the public in 2014 and was shuttered by the county sheriff. But just as it appeared the Boehm company would close for good, it was bought out by a customer — an Ohio-based collector of fine porcelain named Richard Barone. Today the company’s owners hope to introduce a new generation to porcelain collectibles.
Since August, 2016, the Boehm Showroom on Princess Diana Lane has been open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment. The curious as well as seasoned collectors can visit and get an up-close look at those Boehm birds, as well as Boehm’s many other creations — animals, figurines, religious subjects, and more. Boehm pieces range in price from just under $154 for a baby wood thrush to $20,000 for the massive “Sea to Shining Sea” bald eagle pictured on the U.S. 1 cover. Boehm sculptures do not seem to command high prices on the resale market, with recent eBay listings showing that most bird sculptures are going for less than $50.
Collectors may also inquire about having repairs and restorations made to their Boehm pieces, and other types of porcelain sculptures, too, such as Lladro, Ispanky, Cybis, and Connoisseur — some with Trenton connections.
In addition, the Boehm Showroom will have an open house on Sunday afternoon, May 21. Invitations are being sent out to the company’s large customer base, at least, those who are within a 100-mile range — there are Boehm collectors all over the United States, Arace says.
“We’ll give tours, have hors d’oeuvres and whatnot, and we’ll be offering discounts on items in the showroom and conducting a sculpture raffle,” Arace says. “We had an open house in early December, and the turnout was very good, about 150 people or so.”
“More and more people are stopping over to browse, to bring in repairs, etc,” he adds. “We also are getting busier with orders from our website (www.theboehmshowroom.com), and over the phone.”
“In setting up the website for E-commerce, I realized that Boehm hadn’t really had a web presence, which is almost unbelievable,” Arace says. “Now people are finding us through the website, and the more people hear about us, the more interest there is. We’re slowly seeing progress, things are moving in the right direction, and word is getting out.”
“Getting the word out” and restoring awareness of Boehm’s singular place in the history of American porcelain was Arace’s goal after the Museum of American Porcelain Art bought the company and its assets in 2015.
The molding, assembly, and painting of sculptures by Boehm’s veteran artists and artisans has also resumed under the new ownership and management.
And, though the labyrinthine facility won’t be nearly as crowded as it was in Boehm’s heyday when the company employed hundreds of people, a handful of veteran employees are pleased to be back at Boehm, helping to create and craft beautiful things.
“Most of the people have been here for 25 or 30 years, or more,” Arace says. “In fact, except for one apprentice who has just started, nobody here is new.”
Arace reflects that Boehm might like to have some new people on board, but it’s difficult to find individuals gifted enough with the craft, or willing to learn, if they’re just starting out. That’s how skilled his small crew is.
“I never have to tell anybody what to do, I just steer things,” Arace says. “The credit really belongs to them. Without the craftsmen (and women) and specialty people, this re-opening would never have happened. They’re the key, the people who have been here for so long, and who really want to still be here.”
Arace, who will turn 60 on May 11, was born in Newark, spent his early childhood there, then moved with his family to Woodbridge, graduating from Woodbridge High School in 1976. Arace’s father was personnel manager for Norelco (now Philips/Norelco), and his mother worked in various secretarial and administration positions.
Arace’s first profession was in music, and he played drums in a variety of classic rock cover bands in central New Jersey and the Jersey shore.
Around 1980 Arace got into personal food delivery, conveying gourmet steaks and seafood to individual homes.
As far as the collectibles business, he reflects that it was originally his wife’s retirement hobby. They both jumped on the eBay phenomenon and enjoyed going to estate sales and auctions together. Eventually Arace ended up taking over the collectibles business via eBay, as Squarebiz99.
“I became a collectibles dealer and was running the food business at the same time,” he says. “But, around 2010 or 2011 I sold my route to concentrate on the collectibles — buying and selling, going to auctions, sales at private homes that I had read about in the newspaper and whatnot, all for the business of selling on eBay, which I still do today.”
“Through all this, I got to know about porcelain; I’m self-taught, just from being in the collectibles business,” Arace. “It was about 10 years ago when I first found out about Boehm because I would bring pieces there to be restored. I remember going to their place the first time and just being blown away, amazed by what I saw. Through the years, I got to know everybody.”
About four years ago Arace saw that the company was clearly struggling. (Previous owner George Parker was in arrears and had to be evicted in October, 2014. The Mercer County sheriff’s department locked the doors of the facility shortly after.)
“I was following things there to see who might come in and re-open the business, but it just wasn’t working out,” Arace says. “I myself didn’t have the money to dig the company out of debt, so I contacted Richard Barone, who was one of my customers, and an avid collector of about 900 pieces of various porcelain sculptures in his collection.”
“He told me he was opening the Museum of American Porcelain Art in South Euclid, Ohio, so we talked some more and worked out a deal with the landlord of the Boehm facility,” he continues. “To make a long story short, the museum paid back the money owed to the landlord, which entitled the museum to the assets in the building — from the pencils to the kiln and all the figures that were here at the time, and also the legal rights to the brand name ‘Boehm.’”
Since Barone’s major concern is the porcelain museum, he has and will continue to collect valuable pieces of Boehm porcelain, especially retired pieces. The Boehm company’s historic archives will also be stored in the Museum of American Porcelain Art, which will be housed in the Telling Mansion in South Euclid. The museum is scheduled to open in the spring of 2018.
It’s a perfect partnership since Arace is frequently coming across collections of Boehm items, treasured things that belong in a museum dedicated to fine American porcelain. Meanwhile, Arace has been given the position of managing partner in the new partnership, The Boehm Showroom LLC.
“Legally, we put ourselves into business in May of 2016 and officially opened the doors here August 15,” Arace says. “Prior to last May, I was renovating like crazy.”
Offices were renovated and cleaned, telecommunications systems updated, new lighting and display fixtures installed — easily six figures worth of improvements, Arace says.
Edward Marshall Boehm (pronounced “beam”), along with his wife Helen (1920-2010), founded the company in 1950, from humble beginnings in a basement studio in Trenton, which was once the center of ceramics and porcelain manufacturing in the United States. Edward Boehm’s original profession was as a veterinary assistant trained in animal husbandry, but he enjoyed crafting and sculpting animals in his spare time. His wife encouraged him to study art more formally.
Helen Boehm was an optician early on, and she was noted then and throughout her life as a sales and marketing genius, having once sold Clark Gable a pair of sunglasses. Neither knew anything about porcelain when they launched E.M. Boehm Studios, as it was first called.
Boehm porcelains are in well over 100 museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and institutions throughout the world, from the White House, to the Vatican, to Buckingham Palace.
Thanks in part to Helen’s skills as a promoter of Boehm creations, the company has had a relationship with U.S. presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.
One of the most famous stories of a president giving Boehm porcelain to a head of state came in 1972. On his historic visit to China, President Richard Nixon presented Chairman Mao Zedong and the people of China with a life-sized pair of Boehm porcelain mute swans, titled “Birds of Peace.” The sculpture was later auctioned for $150,000.
E.M. Boehm’s last piece is currently on display at the showroom and is titled “Fondo Marino,” Italian for “from the sea.” The work is valued at almost $30,000.
“Only 23 of these were made and you can tell why — it’s quite a job,” Arace says. “Mr. Boehm started this in 1969, the year he passed away, and in fact it was the last thing he was working on.”
“He wanted to do something different from the birds and flowers, so he ventured into this, and it was a challenge,” he adds. “I think it’s incredible.”
After Edward died, Helen really took the company to new levels: Boehm grew into a multimillion-dollar business with studios in Malvern, England, as well as Trenton. The porcelain creations were sold in such high-end stores as Bonwit Teller, and the company had its own showrooms in cities across the U.S. and in London. Helen, lovingly called “The Princess of Porcelain,” continued to present national and international figures with Boehm pieces, spreading the word of Boehm craftsmanship around the world.
Helen Boehm was also a noted philanthropist, involved with a variety of charities including the Adam Walsh Foundation. Arace says the Walsh Foundation’s location in Alexandria, Virginia, collected some 300 Boehm pieces over the years, which the Boehm Showroom and the museum recently purchased.
“They have about 270 pieces, but they want to move, so taking the things with them was not practical,” Arace says. “The museum will get first choice of the items and the others will come here. In fact, in September we’re going to open up a new, large room, offer a sale of these and other items and then make a donation back to the Adam Walsh Foundation.”
Arace reflects that one of the reasons there are so very many Boehm pieces on the market is because Baby Boomers are downsizing their homes, and their children are not interested in fine porcelain. Perhaps because they are more mobile, less likely to be homeowners, more tuned to technology — who knows — but members of Generation X and Millennials apparently don’t want “all that stuff.”
“They look at the Boehm pieces and just say, ‘oh, they’re nice,’”Arace says. “They have no idea of what goes into making these things. That’s why we have open houses and give tours to educate people.”
He says he was the same way growing up. Now Arace feels honored to be in his position with the company.
“I certainly don’t take credit for this, though,” Arace says. “It’s all thanks to the people here. The company would have just disappeared, so we’ve put some life back into it. My initial reasons for getting involved with Boehm were to get these people back to work, since they had gone through so much.”
“But also I wanted to get the company back to its respectability, get the Boehm name back into the public eye,” Arace says. “Boehm is really the last porcelain maker in the United States, but it had lost its footing. My hopes are that we’re gaining that back. This is a labor of love for me, and slowly but surely we’re getting ahead.”
The Boehm Showroom, 25 Princess Diana Lane, Trenton. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. through 4 p.m., or by appointment. Open house (by invitation), Sunday, May 21, noon to 4 p.m. 609- 396-2200 or www.theboehmshowroom.com.