Message in a Box – A Look at Harmony Kingdom

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The popularity of Harmony Kingdom boxes has turned into a tidal wave in North America. The company’s success is almost unimaginable. Since its current incarnation in 1995, it has grown into a $25 million a year business. The highly-detailed and thought-provoking miniature masterpieces are, in fact, the perfect collectible for the paranoid 90’s.

“Aria Amorosa”

One can admire a Harmony Kingdom box for its craftsmanship, its beauty, and its wit. But one can dig deeper, and enjoy it on other, more cerebral, levels. Open it up, and one often finds another figure inside, usually something that relates to the exterior. Every sculpture has its own “inside” joke – literally – hidden messages, concealed creatures, obscure references, and subtle visual puns. For a generation raised on conspiracy theories, ranging from JFK to X-Files, Harmony Kingdom is a natural.

The Truth Is Out There.

A perfect example of these subtleties was the 1998 sudden-death retirement piece, “Aria Amorosa”, pictured above. Sculpted by master sculptor, Peter Calvesbert, this figure of two female elephant seals is loaded with obscure information. Peter’s trademark mouse is hiding under one of the flippers. Less obvious is the Plimsoll line with numerical markings on the belly of one seal. This is a morbid reference to the amount of oil that can be extracted from an elephant seal. There’s a cigarette lighter under the second flipper, inspired by Peter’s beachcombing trip where he found a coastline littered with lighters. And inside, there is a huge rat, lying on its back, and a volcano belching smoke. This is Peter’s joke on himself. While carving the piece, he heard a radio report about the volcanic eruption on Montserrat, and could have sworn the announcer said “monster rat”!

“Aria Amorosa” interior

The Unlikely History

Martin Perry, the founder and artistic director of Antiquark, the company that produces Harmony Kingdom figurines, started his career as a shepherd in North Wales. After a decade of herding sheep, an injury forced him to take a job in the shipping department of a small company that produces replicas for art museums. It was here that Martin developed his artistic skills. His passion was Japanese netsuke – the traditional, intricately carved ivory miniatures used as fasteners for kimonos. He created a process that made marble resin look like antique ivory, a process now employed by Harmony Kingdom. In 1989, he and wife Corinna set out on their own, selling netsuke reproductions to friends and at flea markets. These early pieces – and similar “animal piles” manufactured by Martin – are very rare, and highly sought after by collectors.As Antiquark grew, Martin realized he needed a Master Sculptor, and in 1990, Peter Calvesbert joined the company. Peter has no formal training, but his quirky and humorous animal carvings set the tone for what was to come.During this period, Martin came up with the idea of making his figurines into boxes, and he used an actual tortoise shell as the mould to cast his first box. He called it a “Treasure Jest”. As business continued to grow, Martin was designing and casting pieces in his garden shed, while Corinna took charge of the painting, farming out pieces to women in local Cotswold villages to paint at home.

Harmony Ball Co.

Coincidentally, across the Atlantic, another young couple with a history of selling in flea markets was “shepherding” their own burgeoning business. Noel Wiggins and Lisa Yashon were based in Columbus, Ohio. They had built a business of importing silver chiming balls from Mexico, and in 1991, formed the Harmony Ball Company. While attending a Gift Fair in Germany in 1994, Noel and Lisa discovered “Treasure Jests”, and promptly placed an order with Martin. Originally, HBC sold the boxes with a chiming ball inside, but retailers soon began to ask for the humorous boxes without any jewellery.

Noel and Lisa knew a good thing when they saw one, and they developed a strategy to conquer the collectibles market. They came up with the name “Harmony Kingdom”, divided the figurines into separate lines, retired four early pieces, started a collectors club, and convinced Martin to make some limited editions. By 1995, HBC had acquired the world-wide distribution rights outside the UK for “Harmony Kingdom”.

The Production

Each Harmony Kingdom sculpture starts off as a clay/plasticene carving. Master moulds are taken from this piece, and then pieces are cast from a mixture of marble dust and resin. After hardening, they are stained and gently polished in a stone-filled tumbler, giving them their ivory-like lustre. Finally, each piece is hand-painted, either in the Antiquark facility in Wimberley Mills or in someone’s Cotswold kitchen. Recently, the huge demand has forced Antiquark to move some production to China, notably the “Harmony Garden” series.

The Collection

The earliest “Treasure Jests”, both large and small, that were released between 1990 and 1993 had no interior carvings. The first “inside surprise” appeared in “Jonah’s Hideaway”, released in December, 1993. Peter placed a napping Jonah with shirtsleeves rolled up inside the whale.Before 1994, many of the pieces had no markings indicating copyright or manufacturer, and buyers should be wary of potential fakes on the secondary market. The signature “treble clef” was added to the interiors starting in September, 1994. Then in July, 1995, the distinctive “crown stamp” was marked on every piece, at first on the bottom, and subsequently on the inside of the lid. These variations in markings help to date a piece, the earlier being the more valuable.On the secondary market, the first four that were retired are generally the rarest and most highly prized – “Back Scratch”, “Untouchable”, “Who’d a Thought”, and “Let’s Do Lunch”. According to Leanna Barron in her excellent new book “The Harmony Kingdom Reference Guide”, “Back Scratch” is the rarest with only 554 produced. It will fetch up to $4000 US.Also rare are “The Elusive Few”. This is a series of six animal figures based on earlier carvings – “Panda”, “Ram”, “Shark”, “Rooster”, “Sheep Dog”, and “Shoebill”. The releases on these range from 402 to 659 pieces, although the numbers released in North America were much lower. On the secondary market, these pieces will sell from $500 to $3000 US.

“Back Scratch”

In 1995, master sculptor David Lawrence joined the company, and his beautiful sculpture of two angels playing instruments, entitled “Angel Baroque”, is the rarest of the rare. Only 62 pieces were produced, and it will sell for up to $4500.


The Variations

Harmony Kingdom frequently releases different versions of the same sculpture. Sometimes chan ges are made because of a production problem, but often variations are made just for the fun of it. Inevitably, the first version is the rarest.A recent example of this is “Algenon”, Peter’s hilarious sculpture of his real-life cat knocking over a potted plant. Inside version one, Peter is in his bubble bath with a rubber ducky. In version two, there are two knitting needles and a ball of yarn. The inside lid of version one has Peter’s email address – on version two, it has been removed.

Harmony Garden

The Harmony Garden series was introduced in 1997, and has been an enormous success, now accounting for 20 % of the company’s sales.While the exterior may simply appear to be an exquisite sculpture of an iris or a marsh marigold, inside is another story. It’s the adventures of Lord Byron, the lovesick lady bug, as he searches for true romance. Each flower has a different scene inside – Lord Byron at the gym, or playing his pipe organ, or jamming with Cricket Charlie at the bar. Created by Martin Perry, it’s a marvellous conceit – an ongoing story inside of a collectible!

“Marsh Marigold”

“I wanted to do a range of flower boxes. I engaged two sculptors, known at the time as the Toolshed Associates, and we carved a few boxes. When we thought about what to put inside, the obvious thing was insects. There was no thought then to make a story about it. What we decided to do was make a ‘travelling bug’, i.e. an infectious bug. Of course, infectious bugs are not nice. The bug we carved first was not very attractive, to say the least. We sent the first three or four boxes to Noel and Lisa. They loved the concept but immediately said the bug should be friendly and charming – in fact, the bug should be a ladybug. The Ladybug was named Lord Byron by Lisa. “
“Basket of Roses”

The series started with six single roses, each a different colour, and each with a different scene inside. These were released in limited editions of 3600, and are the most sought-after of the line. Also, Basket of Roses, in which Lord Byron is golfing on the moon (!) is highly desirable – again, only 3600 were released, and each one is signed and hand-numbered by Martin.

Limited Editions

Starting in 1995, Harmony Kingdom began to release Limited Edition pieces, each hand-numbered and signed by the artist. The first was Peter’s “Unbearables”, a large multi-compartment box that portrays a picnic overrun by several curious bears. 2500 pieces were issued. 1998 saw the release of the company’s most complex and extravagant box, “Sin City”. This LE of 5,000 depicts the seven deadly sins, housed in an overcrowded zoo. It has seven compartments inside, and 143 creatures, not including Noel Wiggins, who is staring out from behind the gate, wearing one of his Harmony Kingdom ties! A masterpiece of sculpting – and engineering. .
“Sin City”

The Black Boxes

This macabre series started with a piece by Peter Calvesbert entitled “Have a Heart”, which HBC considered too tasteless to release. A vulture is sitting on a dismembered elephant’s foot, writing a love poem while resting his papers on the back of a headless hyena. The poem reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I ate the head, but the heart is for you”. The heart is inside the box.Collectors heard of the piece, and, after some deliberation, “Have a Heart” was released in January 1998 as the company’s first “banned box”, in an appropriate black package as a Limited Edition of 3600. In a recent survey on the World Collectors Net, HK collectors voted it their favourite piece.
Now, a second Black Box has been released. Entitled “Road Kill”, it depicts several critters with tire marks on their bodies and angel wings on their backs. Amongst the roadside litter on the box is the license plate from the car in which Princess Diana was killed. Completely tasteless, this piece will undoubtedly be as big a success as its predecessor, which now sells for up to $200 US on the secondary market.Not quite a Black Box, but nearly as controversial, is the newly released “Perished Teddies”. Murphy the dog sits in a pile of eviscerated teddy bears, gnawing on one of the stuffed toys. One of the bears has a knife in its back, and another is smoking a cigarette.On occasion, the name comes before the sculpture, and in this case, it was Martin who had the idea: “I was wandering round the Enesco booth at the Rosemont Chicago show last year and the box and the name both occurred simultaneously. Sadly, Enesco didn’t see the joke. The box is now called “Petty Teddies’.” Expect pieces that were distributed before the name change to quickly rise in value.Kingdom Come

As can be expected, Martin Perry has some interesting plans for the future:”In a design sense, I would like to see us creating products that are a little more ‘dangerous’ than they are now…By ‘dangerous’, I don’t mean offensive, I mean dangerous financially. People do seem to stick to proven formulas. There seems so little that’s new. And what is it exactly that make HK so successful? The boxes are funny, and they’re gently thought-provoking, and more than that, they don’t take themselves too seriously. It would be nice to think that you could run a successful business with that philosophy.”Sources: “The Harmony Kingdom Reference Guide” by Leanna Barron, published by HBC; Harmony Kingdom Website; World Collectors Net; and Martin Perry

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