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It could be the craftsmanship, or the cherubic faces or the humorous antics. Whatever it is, somehow, M.I. Hummel porcelain figurines, inspired by the 67-year-old paintings of a German nun, have become cherished collectibles, passed down from generation to generation of Brooklyn families.

On Mother’s Day weekend, master painter Christina Goihl arrived at the Royal Gallery in Bay Ridge with a metal suitcase full of paints, paintbrushes and pens. The artist, one of many who paint the Hummel porcelain figures for the Rodental, Germany-based company Goebel, is always warmly received when she visits America.

After all, when she signs one of the popular collector’s items on its base, the figurine increases in value.

While many of the Royal Gallery’s customers couldn’t be at the store at 7905 Fifth Ave. that day to have their collectibles signed, they entrusted hundreds of them to the store’s clerks, who unboxed them and handed them to Goihl one at a time. The artist steadied her arm on the edge of a card table and in a measured, small script wrote her name, title and the date, "11 May 2002," on the underside of each.

"They are popular in Germany, too," Goihl said of the Hummels. "But the people here enjoy them more. Americans are really fond of them."

Bensonhurst resident Jerry Ciaravalo came to the store with his Polaroid camera to catch Goihl [pronounced GOY-el] at work. He encouraged his son, Jerry, 4, to get in his snapshots.

"I like the decoration," Ciaravalo said of his reasons for collecting the figurines. "I appreciate what the artists do." Goihl signed his $625 Hummel piece "Making New Friends," which depicts a boy building a snowman.

The Hummel figurines are young Bavarian children, in traditional German dress, at play. They are based on seven decades-old paintings by the Franciscan nun Sister Maria Innocentia (Berta) Hummel (1909-1946).

According to Goebel sales representative Carlin Long, to date, the Hummel figurines are still approved by the sisters of Hummel’s convent, the artistic board at the Convent of Siessen.

While she worked, Goihl chatted with the customers and helped Ciaravalo’s son paint the hair of a girl figurine.

In 1984, Goihl began painting at Goebel at the tender age of 15. After a three-year apprenticeship, she became a master painter, using Hummel’s subdued palette of paints to color the figurines. (Each figurine is completely hand-painted, with metallic oxide powders mixed as needed with balsam oil and turpentine.) Goihl is based in the municipality of Teuschnitz in northern Bavaria.

"I like to paint the socks and dresses," said Goihl, who paints the entire figurine when on tour. "At the factory, we have to follow instructions for the colors." She said that the factory operates like an assembly line with one painter confined to coloring shoes, and another, jackets.

Goihl’s enviable position allows her to paint, which, she said, she "loves," and to travel for the company. Although when she visited Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida, "All the painters were complaining. We didn’t want to dress up in costume," she said laughing.

While she paints early 20th-century German children in dirndls, lederhosen, aprons and kerchiefs, Goihl’s a modern 33-year-old woman in slacks and a red-checked shirt. (However, she’s not shy about pointing out her watch with a Hummel figure on its face.)

One of the figures she likes is titled "Call to Glory," a boy with three flags waving over his head - a German flag, an American flag and the European flag.

"I own a few myself. I have really old pieces, bought in the 1950s and ’60s by my grandmother for just a few dollars," she said wonderingly. The Hummels now retail from $60 for a scene to $26,550 for a 32-inch figurine.

Long said that the Royal Gallery has such a "phenomenal customer base" they are eligible for a Hummel artist visit every year.

"Many of the collectors made their first [Hummel] purchases overseas during the war," said Long.
Gallery owner Connie Mahanna said she can’t name a best-selling Hummel at her store. "Everything new is popular," she said.

According to the M.I. Hummel Web site, www.mihummel.com, "Franz Goebel, owner of the renowned porcelain firm, W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik, had an instinct that figurines of children would appeal to Germans hungering for joy during difficult times [the economic depression of the 1930s]."

January 9, 1935 is considered the official birthday of M.I. Hummel figurines, but "World War II severely restricted figurine production," according to the Web site. "Once the war ended, M.I. Hummel figurines continued winning friends all over the world. As the merry figurines appeared once more in shops throughout Germany, they became instantly popular - especially with American GI’s."

It seems that wars are still a part of the Hummel story. Goihl said that since Sept. 11, when traveling to the United States, her case of paints is inspected more scrupulously by customs, and she almost missed one flight out of Chicago because of the searches. "We [the Goebel painters] no longer carry any turpentine or oils, just the powder paints in here," she explained of her travel cases.

Despite the challenges of international travel, she enjoys working with the public in America and on American military bases in Germany, she said.

Although some of the stories she hears are not necessarily happy ones. "One gentleman bought a figurine for his wife. She was really sick," Goihl said, pausing. "It touched me really."

At the Royal Gallery, customer Gloria Fennikoh, a Bay Ridge resident for 63 years, said she has "a couple hundred" in her Hummel collection and her family knows she’s pleased to get them for Christmas and birthday gifts. On that day, she had seven signed, including a firefighter, she said, in memory of a friend who perished on Sept. 11.

Fennikoh said her collection is special to her because she’s of German heritage and "it’s the enjoyment. Their expressions, too," she said.

For her, many of her figurines have sentimental attachments, from the firefighter to the train conductor, which reminds her of her father who worked for the Long Island Rail Road.

Fennikoh, who has been a Hummel collector for 41 years, said she received her first Hummel piece - "the boy with the umbrella" - when her first son was born. Her mother was also a Hummel collector.

"When my mother passed away, I told my niece and my daughter to pick one of her Hummels to remember her by. The ones they chose, my mother had written their names on their bottom. ’How did grandma know?’ my daughter, asked me," Fennikoh recalled, her eyes tearing up.

The Hummel Web site hints that its collectors are aging, by offering tips on how to appraise their collection so it can be divided fairly among family members. For collectors like Fennikoh, whose collection started with her mother and continues with her daughter, and Ciaravalo, who enjoys sharing Hummels with his son, it seems that the sentimental and artistic value of these porcelain figurines will continue to captivate the hearts of generations of Brooklyn collectors to come.

 

The Royal Gallery is located at 7905 Fifth Ave. in Bay Ridge. For store hours, call (718) 745-3629. For more information about the M.I. Hummel collection, go to www.mihummel.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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