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Ceramics Collector

Ceramics Collector: Christopher Haun, patriot potter

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Monday, 15 September 2014 15:48

The pottery prize of the Case auction was this rare ring bottle by Christopher Alexander Haun (1821-1861), which sold for $30,680. The important example of East Tennessee pottery is headed for MESDA in Winston-Salem, N.C., where it will go on display in October 2015. Image courtesy Case Antiques.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In America’s early history, skilled artisans supplied consumers’ demand for utilitarian and luxury goods to fill their homes. While making the objects we cherish as antiques today, these craftsmen – potters, cabinetmakers, silversmiths and glassblowers – were also the backbone of our young democracy. They stepped out of their workshops to vote, enlist as soldiers, and run for local office. The best known example of the active artisan/citizen is probably Revolutionary patriot Paul Revere.

In July, a superb earthenware ring bottle marked “Haun” sold for $30,680 (est. $16,000-$18,000) at a Case Antiques estate auction in Knoxville, Tenn. As fresh as the day it was made, the form was glazed in a bright snake green produced by copper oxide and covered in complex impressed patterns. Purchased with a purpose in mind, the unusual form is headed for the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., where it will go on display in the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery scheduled to open in October 2015.

The maker’s mark is that of Christopher Alexander Haun (1821-1861), another artisan with an interesting history of leaving his workshop to fight for what he believed in. Case is well-known for its finds in the field of regional painting, furniture and decorative arts. The ring bottle turned up at a local appraisal fair and was consigned by a family who had carefully preserved it because they knew it had a connection to the Civil War. Catalog entries at the firm frequently go beyond aesthetic description to make important contributions to our understanding of the historical background of the objects.

Christopher Haun belonged to a related group of potters in Greene County, which also included other established makers such as William Hinshaw and J.A. Low as well his younger brother Lewis Haun. Like many people in eastern Tennessee, Haun was strongly Union in his sympathies when the Civil War began. Several potters were among the raiding party who burned a Confederate railroad bridge at Lick Creek, an act for which five men including Haun were executed in 1861.

He wrote a letter to his wife from a Knoxville jail telling her to contact his potter friends about finishing off his current wares and then to sell the equipment in his workshop. John Case credits East Tennessee pottery expert Carole Wahler for her detailed research on the craftsman which has led to a better understanding of his work; an entry on the Haun Pottery appears on her website

Case stresses the importance of Haun and his work: “We’re talking about this extraordinary potter, who I think is one of the finest potters of the 19th century. In a few short years, a number of pieces have surfaced that would be considered masterpieces of the ceramic art.” He stresses that only recently have these facts about Haun’s life and career emerged to provide a background for his beautifully crafted pots. In May 2010, the auction house sold a rare pitcher decorated in lead glaze with manganese or iron oxide loop designs for $9,988 (est. $3,500-$4,500). In the fall that year, they offered a well-shaped redware jar covered in cream slip and decorated with a bold green loop pattern that brought $36,800. Both were marked “C.A. Haun.”

The circular form of the ring bottle allowed it to be tied to a saddle or hooked over an arm for carrying. After the auction, Case noted that this was the only known example of the form from the Haun pottery works: “And I’m afraid it will be for the future – it’s unbelievably rare. This green bottle is so elegant in form and perfectly crafted. It was difficult to make these ring bottles; two halves of clay had to be joined at a seam so the section is perfectly circular. On top of that, he ran a band around the outer circumference and then added the stamps – surely he was showing off. I don’t know of a finer example in the South or in the North. And it’s redware on top of which he put down these amazing glazes of lead and copper oxide; you can’t really do that with stoneware. It looks like it was made two weeks ago.” Collectors attending next February’s Williamsburg Antiques Forum can look forward to a lecture on Haun and his pottery by John Case.

Skillful execution and excellent condition naturally led to the purchase of the Haun rarity as an important exhibit for the new gallery planned for MESDA. Robert Leath, chief curator and vice president, collections & research, at Old Salem Museums & Gardens wrote: “With the addition of the ring bottle to the Mariner Collection, we are delighted that both he and his pottery will be represented in the Mariner Gallery when it opens next year in October 2015.”

A recent MESDA announcement about the gallery noted that the installation “will be the first permanent museum gallery of its kind devoted solely to early southern pottery, combining masterpieces from both the museum’s public and the Mariners’ private collections. … Together, these objects will tell a more complete story of the southern ceramics traditions and how it evolved from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century than has ever been told before, detailing the lives of individual potters from Duche to Aust to Chandler, and all the major centers of southern ceramics production from Baltimore to Edgefield to western Tennessee.”

Currently, Case presents two large estate auctions a year at their headquarters in the historic Cherokee Mills building in Knoxville. The next major auction will be held in Jan. 24. For more information visit

To follow the activities of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Old Salem Museums and Gardens, visit On Oct. 23-25, the eighth biennial MESDA Conference with presentations on Southern material culture and decorative arts will be held at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.


The pottery prize of the Case auction was this rare ring bottle by Christopher Alexander Haun (1821-1861), which sold for $30,680. The important example of East Tennessee pottery is headed for MESDA in Winston-Salem, N.C., where it will go on display in October 2015. Image courtesy Case Antiques.

The potting skill of Christopher Haun can be clearly seen in the graceful shape of this 13-inch high jar with attached loop handles. The jar, covered with cream slip decorated with an abstract design in green, sold for $36,800 four years ago.
Courtesy Case Antiques

The stamped mark of C.A. Haun appears on the jar’s shoulder underneath a splash of copper oxide glaze. Image courtesy Case Antiques.

Although missing its handle, the redware pitcher clearly bears the stamp of C.A. Haun by the compass star on the upper rim; the lot brought $9,988 at Case in 2010. Image courtesy Case Antiques.

John Case shows off the perfect condition and circular form of the Haun ring bottle. An elaborate impressed pattern enlivens the vessel’s green-glazed surface. Image courtesy Case Antiques.

This decorated lead-glazed earthenware dish attributed to Gottfried Aust of Salem, N.C., circa 1775-1785, will be another exhibit in the new Mariner Gallery at MESDA. Image courtesy Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

Destined for display in the Mariner Gallery, this simple crock bears the signature “Mary Adams” and was made 1810-1830 in Hagerstown, Md. This is the earliest signature of a female potter on a Southern piece. Adams was the daughter of potter Jonas Knode and widow of potter Henry Adams. Image courtesy Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 08:02

Ceramics Collector: Newcomb Pottery

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Friday, 11 April 2014 12:11

Neal Auction Co. set a world auction record for Newcomb Pottery in June 2009 when this high glaze vase, decorated in 1904 by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc with an incised design of Jackmanii Climbing Clematis, brought $169,200 after spirited bidding (est. $35,000-$50,000). Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

NEW ORLEANS – “Women, Art, & Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise” presents the largest comprehensive exhibition of arts and crafts from the famous New Orleans college workshop to tour the country in thirty years. The highly sought-after art pottery is placed in the context of other crafts practiced at Newcomb – textiles, metalwork, jewelry, bookbinding and works on paper. At the same time, the traveling exhibition focuses on the transformative role art education played in the lives of Southern women.

The exhibition was organized by Sally Main, senior curator of the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Following an initial run in New Orleans, the show will be on display at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens May 17 to Aug. 31 and continue touring to other institutions for the next three years.

An added bonus for collectors was the publication of a groundbreaking new volume, The Arts and Crafts of Newcomb Pottery (Skira Rizzoli 2013) with contributions from Sally Main, Ellen Paul Denker, Martin Eidelberg, David Conradsen, Adrienne Spinozzi and Kevin W. Tucker. The attention focused on Newcomb by the book and exhibition resulted in strong prices for the art pottery in recent auctions and encouraged buyers to seek out other decorative arts made at the college.

In an interview with ACN, Sally Main explained, “This Newcomb show introduces people to the other crafts. Everybody knows the ceramics, but the other pieces are just as beautiful - these women were amazingly talented. The textiles were important to me, to get them out and introduce them to people, because the textiles were second only to pottery in sales, and they’re absolutely beautiful. The juxtaposition of colored threads makes them glow. The textiles look like pointilliste paintings.”

She continued, “Then the metalwork and jewelry were stunning. The proficiency with which they executed these things belied how new they were to the craft itself. They were doing extraordinary things.” The metalwork classes were so successful that they went coed, when Mary Williams Butler allowed male students from the Tulane School of Architecture to take instruction. At the time, William Spratling was teaching architecture at Tulane; he learned skills there that he later used in his famous silversmithing project in Taxco, Mexico.

Founded in 1886, Newcomb College was an experiment in educating women side-by-side with the male students at Tulane. The curator pointed out, “Another experiment was the idea that you educate women in the arts to give them an opportunity to achieve economic independence. Women could get married, or become teachers, or open their own shop. The college opened a door that wasn’t there before.” Newcomb arts and crafts were sold to the public then, and the objects created – led by the desirable art pottery – continue to appeal to the public today.

Newcomb students looked around them for inspiration when they picked up their brushes; the pottery emphasized the flora and foliage of the South as well as evocative moonlit landscape scenes. The appeal of these designs was demonstrated when the Neal Auction Co. sold a 1904 vase decorated by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc with an incised design of Jackmanii Climbing Clematis for a world record price of $169,200 in 2009 and a 1908 vase with a circle of pine trees decorated by Leona Nicholson in 2007 for $67,000.

At Neal’s Louisiana Purchase auction last November, shortly after the Newcomb exhibition’s opening, a large high-glaze vase, decorated with calla lilies by Mary Williams Butler in 1902, brought $35,850, and a 1902 vase with stylized foliage by LeBlanc sold for $21,510. Entry-level collectors were able to pick up smaller vases from the 1920s and 1930s for prices in the $2,500-$3,500 range. Interest in Newcomb art pottery extends far beyond New Orleans. Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., has sold many examples in the past 15 years for five-figures including an 1902 LeBlanc vase circled with stylized rabbits for $84,000 in 2006.

Amanda Mantle Winstead, senior appraiser of Fine Arts at Neal, also runs her own art consulting firm and is a graduate of Newcomb College. She emphasized that prices depend very much on what comes up for sale: “You have different levels based upon the very distinctive periods of Newcomb. You can talk about the early high-glaze pieces, then you have a sort of transitional period when they’re going into the landscape design that is so identified with Newcomb, then you get into a period of floral decoration when they’re really producing a lot of pottery. The high-glaze period is at the forefront of the Arts and Crafts Movement and stylistically is different from later periods – different glazes, different designs, different palette. There was not as much produced so there is not as much in the marketplace. That is still your high point in terms of value.”

She noted that the record price in 2009 for the clematis vase by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc resulted from a combination of factors: “It was beautifully carved and modeled – it had a lot of dimension to the surface of the pot. And then the glaze coupled with that made it so strong aesthetically. The size was big, the condition was perfect – everything came together. And that day you had the right people bidding on it – an institution, a dealer in New York, and a very aggressive private collector in New Orleans. It was definitely an A+ vase.”

“It’s all about the collectors and what they’re looking for,” she added. “I’ve worked with many collectors over the years, and they seek out certain designs and periods. Some want the best examples of landscape vases from the 1910s and 1920s. They don’t even look at the high glaze – that’s not the aesthetic they’re interested in. These vases are also very desirable, so the bottom range is $2,500-3,000, while a great large landscape vase might be $15,000-$20,000. There are variations in the designs, for example, palm trees with the moon is really unusual.”

Winstead concluded, “The exhibition absolutely has increased interest in Newcomb works. The installation at the Newcomb Art Gallery was gorgeous, fabulously presented with the textiles, and the metalwork, and the china decoration all in one exhibition. And the book is incredibly well done. Anytime you have this kind of exhibition, it can only help, and we’ve seen new registered bidders. Looking to the future, the more exceptional the pot, the more money it will bring.”

Search catalogs for past and future offerings of Newcomb Pottery at or at the Live Auctioneers website.


Neal Auction Co. set a world auction record for Newcomb Pottery in June 2009 when this high glaze vase, decorated in 1904 by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc with an incised design of Jackmanii Climbing Clematis, brought $169,200 after spirited bidding (est. $35,000-$50,000). Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

'Women, Art, & Social Change,' a traveling exhibition organized by the Newcomb Art Gallery, unites the famous art pottery, such as this exquisite palm vase by an unknown decorator, with the textiles and metalwork created by women at the college. Courtesy Newcomb Art Gallery; collection of Don Fuson.

From the exhibition, this rare plate was decorated with an overall cactus design around 1903 by Newcomb College student Harriet Joor. As usual, resident potter Joseph Meyer created the clay form, which was incised, painted, and finished with a glossy glaze. Newcomb Art Collection, Tulane University

The resurgence of the market for Newcomb was apparent last November when this large high-glaze vase, decorated with calla lilies by Mary Williams Butler in 1902, brought $35,850. Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

A 1908 high-glaze vase with a circle of pine trees decorated by Leona Nicholson is an excellent example of how carving and modeling was used to add depth to the painted design; this vase doubled its estimate to bring $67,000 in 2007. Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

Sisters Amelie and Desiree Roman were members of the Saturday drawing classes for women, which began at Newcomb in the 1880s. Amelie enjoyed considerable success as a decorator – she painted this delightful rabbit mug around 1902 – and went on to teach at the college. Courtesy Newcomb Art Gallery; collection of Caren Fine.

A rare form, this high-glaze handled tyg, decorated circa 1900-1901 by Amelie Roman, sold for $22,325 in 2005. The inscription reads: ‘One Sip of This Will Bathe The Drooping Spirits In Delight Beyond The Bliss of Dreams.’ Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

A Newcomb Pottery floral vase decorated by Anna Frances Simpson, 1911, will be among the offerings in the April 25-27 auction at the Neal Auction Co. in New Orleans. Courtesy Neal Auction Co.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:12

Ceramics Collector: Historical Staffordshire tableware

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Monday, 11 November 2013 14:21

Rare views bring top prices. This Clews plate with the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in Massachusetts, one of three known examples, brought $21,330 (est. $4,000-$6,000). Courtesy Pook & Pook.

With holiday entertaining just around the corner, everyone is asking, where are those dishes? The very concept of a matching set of dishes goes back to Roman times, and by the 18th century wealthy consumers were ordering extensive porcelain services with unifying patterns from Chinese, English and European sources.

Middle- class households had the same desire for attractive services—at more affordable prices. Spurred on by the popularity of blue and white Chinese porcelain, British potteries developed a method of transfer-printing complex designs on ceramics. During the early decades of the 19th century, a repertoire of Oriental designs was quickly expanded with patterns based on scenic contemporary prints.

For American collectors, the most important patterns are those defined as Historical Staffordshire, transfer-printed pottery with views of American patriotic figures, national buildings, and scenery created to appeal to buyers in the newly formed United States. The early October sale of the Goldberg & Brown Collection of Historical Blue Staffordshire at Pook & Pook featured an illustrated catalog of almost 600 lots, which celebrated the intricate patterns and complex forms of this desirable ceramic specialty.

Henry Francis du Pont was an enthusiastic and influential collector of transferware with American views, buying examples during the 1950s to furnish the Blue Staffordshire Room at Winterthur. Leslie Grigsby, senior curator of ceramics and glass at the museum, says, “I think he was interested in it all through his collecting career. He often was collecting to furnish a particular room, and there are over 180 pieces of underglaze blue in that one room.”

Perhaps England had been on the losing side—not only during the War of Independence but more recently in the War of 1812—but savvy British businessmen quickly geared up to produce patriotic designs that could be sold through American merchants. For example, the Staffordshire firm of Enoch Wood & Sons created a pattern call “Commodore Macdonough’s Victory,” celebrating his defeat of the British on Lake Champlain. Commercial advantage obviously trumped any lingering hard feelings.

As can be seen in the Pook catalog, most designs for the American market feature views of important buildings or attractive landscapes and seascapes based on prints made by artists who had visited the United States. Fortunately for collectors, many bear the printed or impressed name of the maker on the back as well as a scene title. In the Wood & Sons series of Erie Canal views, the maker specifies the scene, such as “Aqueduct Bridge at Rochester,” providing valuable historical information.

Unlike our modern “service for 12” in a single pattern, Staffordshire transferware sometimes features different central views, united by a common decorative border. American designs are printed a strong saturated cobalt blue which ranges from bold to almost inky dark, so we can assume that was what sold best in this country. Following these rules of supply and demand, the rare views that bring top prices today were surely the least popular sellers when new. Collectors will also pay a premium for rare forms that seldom appear. The same dignified designs that were applied to coffee pots also covered chamber pots and pitcher and bowl sets for the bedroom.

Hayden Goldberg and his partner Curtis Brown were especially fond of the Boston State House pattern by John Rogers & Son. While a useful 17-inch platter brought $830, a decorative reticulated serving basket and tray with the scene sold for $4,740 (est. $1,000-&2,000). An even rarer form—a 4-inch-high ladies spittoon—brought $7,110.

The rarest pattern in the entire sale was a plate with the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in the Connecticut River Valley, one of only three known, which sold for a stunning $21,330 (est. $4,000-$6,000). The plate was impressed “Clews” for the James and Ralph Clews works in Cobridge, Staffordshire.

Lots which combined a spectacular form with a desirable view also did well. There were two reticulated baskets with a view of the West Point Military Academy as it appeared in the first quarter of the 19th century. One with a matching undertray sold for $4,977 (est. $2,000-$3,000) and another with an undertray with a scene of the Catskill Mountains sold for $5,688 (est. $2,500-$3,500).

Lafayette (1757-1834), the French nobleman who had fought by Washington’s side in the Revolutionary War, became America’s first pop culture hero when he returned to the United States for a visit in 1824. Staffordshire were quick to produce transfer patterns with portrait busts, scenes of his activities, and even views of his ancestral home in France. A large platter with the legend “Landing of Gen. Lafayette at Castle Garden New York 16th August 1824” made by Clews sold for $2,673 (est. $300-$500).

An even rarer feather edge platter with a transfer-printed image of Gen. Lafayette taken from a well-known portrait brought $6,518 (est. $3,000-$5,000).

Designs featuring founding father George Washington were equally popular. One of the highest prices in the sale was realized for a pearlware plate with bust of Washington and the Great Seal sold for $8,295 (est. $1,500-$2,500). Clews produced a pattern labeled on the front “America and Independence,” which featured a bust of Washington and the names of fifteen states in a surrounding border. A platter, 17 inches by 14 inches, with the design was a good buy at $1,778. The entire catalog can be viewed online at and print copies are still available from the auction house.

After the auction, Jamie Shearer, Pook & Pook vice president and American decorative arts specialist, commented, “Anything that was special or in excellent condition, private buyers were adding those to their collection and were willing to pay extra for those lots. The color is so vivid and bright.”

He also emphasized the breadth of this collection: “Goldberg was not focused on any one series. If it was blue and he didn’t have that form or pattern, that was what he bought.” The catalog opens with a tribute and brief history of the collection. Hayden Goldberg purchased his first piece of historical blue Staffordshire in 1963, a good time to be buying in the field.

Asked what means most to collectors today, Shearer noted, “In today’s world, most advanced collectors are more condition-oriented because they have access to so much more through the Internet. In the past, you might see 50 pieces at shows and auctions in a year. Now you can see 50 pieces in any given hour. So now with that access, people feel they can wait for an example in excellent condition.”

At Winterthur, Grigsby is spreading the word about the online exhibition “Patriotic America,” which can be accessed through or at The introduction explains: “Patriotic America offers a comprehensive set of images of America in the 1820s, documenting a time of great celebration in the country. In 1815, when trade between America and England resumed following the War of 1812, Staffordshire potters were eager to regain access to one of their most lucrative markets. This virtual exhibition brings together the production of more than twelve British potters who created an aesthetic that would be desirable to Americans eager to purchase objects highlighting their growing nation. Many of the images were inspired by paintings and engravings depicting the new nation’s remarkable landscape and notable architecture. Succeeding generations have treasured these wares, and they survive as a testament to the skills of the Staffordshire potter and the patriotism of his American consumer.”

The exhibition was a joint project of Winterthur, the Transferware Collectors Club, and Historic New England. Collectors can mark their calendars—the Transferware Collectors Club will be coming to Winterthur on Oct. 17, 2014 as part of their annual conference, which will be held in Pennsylvania next year. For more information on the organization’s activities and history of transfer-printed Staffordshire wares, visit


 Rare views bring top prices. This Clews plate with the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute in Massachusetts, one of three known examples, brought $21,330 (est. $4,000-$6,000). Courtesy Pook & Pook.

 Henry Francis du Pont was an enthusiastic collector of transfer-printed American views, which he used to create this impressive display in the Blue Staffordshire Room at Winterthur. Courtesy, Winterthur; photo by Lizzie Himmel.

 Large tureens remain the show-stoppers of any set of dishes. This example stamped J. & W. Ridgway, which features views of the Alms House Boston and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum Hartford, sold in October at Pook & Pook for $5,214. Courtesy Pook & Pook.

Reticulated baskets with lacy cutout borders are another desirable form. Decorated with scenes of the Upper Ferry Bridge over River Schuylkill and Woodlands near Philadelphia, this example brought $9,480 (est. $1,500-$2,500). Courtesy Pook & Pook. 

Part of the Beauties of America series by J. & W Ridgway, this strainer for a platter features a desirable early view of the Capitol in Washington, which brought $3.081 (est. $800-$1.200). Courtesy Pook & Pook. 

The Staffordshire firm of Thomas Mayer produced a series featuring the arms of the American states. This attractive leaf-shaped serving dish with the Arms of South Carolina sold for $3,081 (est. $1,000-$1,500). Courtesy Pook & Pook. 

A true souvenir plate, this feather edge platter with printed portrait at center celebrates the 1824 visit of Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette and brought a final price of $6,518 (est. $3,000-$5,000). Courtesy Pook & Pook. 

The Boston State House pattern was a favorite in the Goldberg-Brown collection. The same dignified scenes were applied to tableware and personal items such as wash sets, and this diminutive ladies’ spittoon, which brought $7,110 (est. $1,200-1,800). Courtesy Pook & Pook.  

Last Updated on Monday, 11 November 2013 14:58

Piero Fornasetti porcelain: classic themes, fantastic variations

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Tuesday, 10 September 2013 09:31

Ceramics specialist Paul Vandekar has added Fornasetti’s 20th century designs to the inventory he exhibit at major antique fairs, where they sell in the $200-1,500 range. The dealer particularly likes the trompe l’oeil twist of this Tema e Variazioni plate. Courtesy Earle Vandekar of Knightsbridge.

CHICAGO – Surrounded by the glories of Italian art, Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) possessed a magical talent for transforming classic themes into brilliant contemporary design. Very much the Renaissance man, he was painter, sculptor, craftsman and decorator who applied his creativity to everything from an ocean liner to a porcelain plate.

Richard Wright heads a Chicago auction house specializing in modern and contemporary design and says, “I love Fornasetti. His work is a refreshing breeze in what can be an austere modernist aesthetic. A Fornasetti piece in an interior can add a note of surrealism, a more decorative flourish.”

He clearly values the past. It makes complete sense that he is an Italian designer,” continues Wright. “Also there is an element of humor to Fornasetti that is refreshing to see in the modernist tradition.”

Fornasetti spent most of his life in Milan, where he pursued formal studies at the Brera Academy in 1930-1932 but was expelled for “insubordination,” an indication that his artistic life might not follow a traditional path. Early projects included everything from printed designs for silk scarves to frescoes in a Padua palazzo. In 1940, he met Gio Ponti (1891-1979), a noted Milanese architect and designer, with whom he would collaborate on furniture and interiors.

In an Italian Masterworks sale last December, Wright sold an ash Ponti/Fornasetti bookcase design, for $50,000. He said, “We’d love to get more. Those are really sought-after. Ponti being at the top of the Italian design market, he’s known as being a rationalist but it’s wonderful that he let his pieces be decorated on every surface.” Fornasetti adds a flourish of joy to the purity of Ponti’s designs.

Fornasetti continually experimented with trompe l’oeil decoration of the sort that covers the Palladian cabinet, circa 1955, which brought $43,750 in the same sale. The case piece is modern in form, yet sports the façade of a classical building.

More tricks of the eye cover the surface of Fornasetti’s screens, such as one Wright sold in 2008 for $7,200 which appears to reveal the inside of a country gentleman’s dressing room. He notes, “The screens are great, they’re one of his most famous designs. There are many variations.” They are tremendously popular because they add such a decorative pop as a room accent.

Wright is delighted to be able to offer one of Fornasetti’s curvaceous Musicale chairs in the Living Contemporary sale coming up on Sept. 26 (est. $2,000-$3,000). The form was originally designed in 1951, and this example is from an edition of 20 issued in 1991. Although Piero Fornasetti is gone, his son Barnaba continues to operate the family studio. On the inventive website collectors can find the artist’s designs, biographical details and information on the Milan store.

Wright points out, “I think from a collector’s standpoint it is important to understand how to date the material. Certain designs are still being made. We work directly with the Fornasetti studio. Barnaba is a great representative of the legacy; we pass every piece we get by him. They’re very good about dating and helping us to identify all the work correctly.”

On the website, ceramics collectors will immediately spot an image of Fornasetti standing next a wall of plates, and truly the porcelain plate held such a fascination for the Italian designer that he never tired of creating new patterns for their circular surface. His best-known series, Tema e Variazioni, features more than 350 trompe l’oeil and surrealistic variations on a single woman’s face. The artist saw a photograph of Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri (1875-1944), and he never tired of her beauty.

As pointed out on the official website, “For Piero Fornasetti, a single idea provided enough inspiration to create infinite variations. … By allowing his imagination to roam freely, Fornasetti was able to constantly reinvent or reinterpret an image.” The collection of a lifetime—whether you gather four or 50—a group of Tema e Variazioni plates provides an eye-riveting display for any interior.

Paul Vandekar, who sells fine early English, European and Asian pottery and porcelain as Earle Vandekar of Knightsbridge Inc., has added wall of Fornasetti designs to his display at antique fairs. He says, “We’ve always been very venturesome in what we sell. I like very strong designs—I love things that have an amusing element to them, I love trompe l’oeil.”

He adds, “Changes in taste that have been going on, and we wanted to buy 20th century objects; the Fornasetti porcelain seemed to be a natural progression for us.” Vandekar finds in Fornasetti’s designs the same sort of whimsy he values in English pottery. Also the use of classical and neoclassical motifs makes a connection between the 20th century porcelain and the 18th and 19th ceramics he offers. While many collectors do hang the plates on a wall, Vandekar says that other buyers arrange them as a dramatic table setting for the dining room.

In addition to the Cavalieri face variations, Fornasetti made other assemblages such as sets of a dozen plates that form a Renaissance Eve or Adam when hung in the correct order. A rarer series called Le Oceanidi features surrealistic combinations of pretty women and seashells.

Collectors entering the field should spend some time studying Fornasetti’s porcelain designs, which were transfer-printed on blanks that he purchased. Some designs are rarer than others. Some patterns were reissued by Rosenthal in Germany and bear that mark. The family company has also added some new variations since the designer died. Prices vary widely, and the plates are often sold at auction in assembled groups. Individual examples may still surface at house sales and markets. The designs are hard to resist, however, so the collector may just fall in love at first sight.

An overview of Fornasetti’s work is available in Fornasetti: The Complete Universe by Mariuccia Casadio, edited by Barnaba Fornasetti with an introduction by Andrea Branzi. Other references include Fornasetti: Designer of Dreams by Patrick Mauries and Piero Fornasetti: A Conversation between Philippe Starck and Barnaba Fornasetti by Brigitte Fitoussi.


 Ceramics specialist Paul Vandekar has added Fornasetti’s 20th century designs to the inventory he exhibit at major antique fairs, where they sell in the $200-1,500 range. The dealer particularly likes the trompe l’oeil twist of this Tema e Variazioni plate. Courtesy Earle Vandekar of Knightsbridge.

Five plates from the Tema e Variazioni series featuring the face of opera singer Lina Cavalieri brought $2,375 at a Rago auction in March. All are 10 1/4 inches in diameter and are marked “Fornasetti Milano Made in Italy.” Courtesy Rago Auctions. 

Fornasetti’s furniture is often ornamented with classical motifs; a Palladian Cabinet brought $43,750 in a Wright sale of Italian Masterworks last December. Courtesy Wright.

Like a large wall puzzle, 12 plates, designed by Fornasetti in 1954, can be assembled to form an image of Eve. The transfer-printed porcelain set brought $2,125 at Wright in 2011. The artist also created a set featuring Adam. Courtesy Wright.

Fornasetti experimented with many trompe l’oeil designs, which decorated not only his porcelain plates but also furniture forms. This folding screen with a sporting gent’s accessories sold for $7,200 at Wright in 2008. Courtesy Wright.

Wright auction in Chicago will offer this Musicale chair design by Piero Fornasetti in their Living Contemporary sale on Sept. 26 (est. $2,000-$3,000). Courtesy Wright.

Less often found, a set of eight Le Oceanidi plates sold for $5,313 at Rago’s in March. All are marked ‘Fornasetti Milano Made in Italy’ and date to the 1950s-1960s. Courtesy Rago Auctions.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 September 2013 10:34

Ceramics Collector: Peter Voulkos, Abstract Ceramicism

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Friday, 14 June 2013 09:27

At the first Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auction in the fall of 2010, this ‘Gash’ stoneware stack pot made in 1978 sold for $105,750, a record for Peter Voulkos’ pottery. Shown in two important exhibitions during the ceramist’s lifetime, the abstract reworking of a classical caryatid form – 48in high – is comprised of four distinct sections. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions

CINCINNATI - Values are rising for masterworks by ground-breaking artist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), but collectors still can find representative pieces made during his prolific career at many price points. Among many Voulkos lots in the May Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auction in Cincinnati, a signed 1957 vase, which had been exhibited at the potter’s 1995 retrospective in Japan, sold for $24,000, and a signed stoneware sculpture with an incised and painted surface, also from 1957, brought a strong $33,600.

Born in Bozeman, Mont., to Greek immigrant parents, Voulkos began his art studies in his home state and went on to receive an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He spent much of his life teaching others, first at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, now the Otis Institute of Art and Design. Most notably, he established the ceramics department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1959 to 1985.

The potter was pursued by many of the same demons that hinder other great artists, but throughout his life, he continued to turn out carefully crafted pottery in his unique style. Plates of varying sizes were a favorite form—he was a master at turning pieces on the wheel—and he may be best known for his cylindrical “stack pots,” which often bring the highest prices for his work at auction. He made a late-life foray into bronze-casting sculpture in the stack pot form, examples of which are in the collection of Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J.

Earlier this month at a Rago Modern Auction in Lambertville, N.J., a circular stoneware charger with glazed details (D. 20 inches) —signed and dated 1987—sold for $8,750. David Rago commented later, “Voulkos was to clay what the abstract expressionists were to canvas. Voulkos had his issues, usually revolving around women and liquor. But then, he was flesh and bones after all. What I found interesting is that his later work, that done within a decade of his death, seemed to improve on things he’d done 10 to 15 years earlier. Certainly some of his germinal abstract expressionist work in the ’60s is serious stuff, and I’m not saying that he didn’t create masterpieces in the ’70s and ’80s. But I tracked him while he was still alive, and he just seemed to get stronger as an artist.”

Ceramics expert Garth Clark has written excellent catalog entries to accompany the important works by Voulkos offered in the Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions. In a recent interview with this columnist, he analyzed recent sales: “Overall his market is very strong. From 1956 onwards, he has a sort of sculptural art vision of where he wants to take pottery. He was influenced by several things; one was Japanese potters who worked in that form. But he was also influenced by the Abstract Expressionists—and that started him off in a new direction.”

Until recently, he continued, “Nobody paid much attention to his early work, from 1949 through up to 1956-57 when his work became radicalized. But prior to that, he made the most beautiful classical pots and he made mainly functional pots during that period. They are exquisitely thrown. In Voulkos’ first year of doing pottery, he was throwing as well as somebody who had spent five or six years doing it. He had an instant gift on the wheel – and the ability to manipulate clay on the wheel and really throw beautiful pots can take years and years for a potter to get to that point. Voulkos burst on the scene with his amazing pots, perfectly thrown —that was a very precocious talent that he had.”

Clark pointed out that, when his work changed in the mid-1950s, he still carefully controlled the results: “Those pots that look so rough—to throw them requires great skill. He would throw a perfectly formed pot, then alter it so it became less so. Everything he did was on the wheel, and then once it was thrown, then he’d start altering it and cutting it and pushing holes through and shifting the piece so it was more asymmetrical. Now people are paying attention to the early pots as well. For the longest time, nobody was interested because they wanted his ‘art work’ from 1956-57 onwards.” He added that some of these early works had done well in the Cowan’s sales, bringing prices in the $2,000-$7,000 range.

In addition to the distracting demons, Voulkos had a brash public persona, which contrasted sharply with the more thoughtful artist that good friends connected with in private. Clark noted, “He was not good at marketing. He did a lot of things that were self-defeating and had very few major dealers during his career. He did things that damaged his marketability. Because he didn’t handle the business side of things very well, dealers were a little reluctant to work with him. So during his own lifetime, I don’t think he achieved the prices he should have. And I think that’s what now makes him attractive—people realize that he one of the top ceramicists of the 20th century. So collectors are starting to come into the market and begin to look for his work.”

In fall 2010, Clark wrote eloquently about a 1978 Voulkos stack pot named “Gash” that sold for a record $105,750 at Cowan’s: “Beginning with its forceful title, this piece is about the innate power of the stack pot. It has four distinct volumes. The first three, which are tightly thrown, thick-walled and unlike some stacks barely diminish in width as they rise, give the vessel a solid, stoic stance. A long thick neck rises from the center of this totem, an assertive column that does not narrow at the top, holding on to its power to the end. The middle of the neck has a beautiful moment when the wall pulls inward then swells out, voluptuously and sensually, pushing the eye upward to the climax of the rim. This is Voulkos' throwing at its most seductive.

“The surface is no less compelling. Vertical and horizontal lines with their interstices rubbed with manganese oxide create an almost geometric framework for this organic jar. Some lines end with a piece of porcelain that has been pushed through the clay, a punctuation point. Vying for attention is the deep cut that circles the bottom of the neck and then soars upward visually dissecting it in half. Meandering through the pot, almost a form of automatic drawing, are more free-form cuts where the artist seems to be listening to the clay, letting it direct his knife. But it is the cut in the third tier that gives this stack pot its title, Gash, cut all the way through, removed and then replaced into the vessel …”

He concluded the entry, “It stands with the self-importance of a Greek classical caryatid, not the artist's goal—indeed he tried to suppress figurative associations—but, as is often the case with pots, the anthropomorphism remains insistent. This pot, a record of a loving and transforming assault on shape and surface is, in short, a masterpiece.”

Collectors will continue to scour auction listings, using their own judgment to separate the attractive from the irresistible. But when the most eloquent works, large or small, come up in sales, expect future prices to continue to reinforce the importance of Peter Voulkos’ creations in the history of ceramics.

Bibliography on the artist’s career includes Peter Voulkos: a Dialogue with Clay by Rose Slivka and The Art of Peter Voulkos by Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujimoto. Potter Ken Price, featured in a January column, was a student of Voulkos, and their relationship is explored in Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968 by Mary Davis MacNaughton.


At the first Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auction in the fall of 2010, this ‘Gash’ stoneware stack pot made in 1978 sold for $105,750, a record for Peter Voulkos’ pottery. Shown in two important exhibitions during the ceramist’s lifetime, the abstract reworking of a classical caryatid form – 48in high – is comprised of four distinct sections. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions 

 Top Voulkos lot in the May Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auction, this signed but untitled sculptural stoneware work from 1957 has an incised and painted surface. Final price: $33,600. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions

A rare early work by Voulkos, this portrait charger incised with portrait of a woman was made around 1952 at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana; the stoneware plate brought $3,000 at Cowan’s in May. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions 

 In the mid-1950s, Voulkos experimented with using stencils to created raised abstract figural designs in the glaze of his pots. This signed 1957 vase, which had been exhibited at the potter’s 1995 retrospective in Japan, sold for $24,000 at Cowan’s in May. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions

 Earlier this month, this large gas-fired charger with glazed details – signed and dated 1987 – sold for $8,750 (est. $4,000-6,000) at a Rago Modern auction. Courtesy Rago Auctions

This early glazed stoneware platter – ‘D. 14’ – was signed and dated 1962. The volcanic energy of the work helped the lot realize $11,250 at a Rago Auction in February 2012. Courtesy Rago Auctions 

 Carefully constructed to look like it might collapse, this stack pot titled ‘Siguirilla’ was made in 1999, late in Voulkos’ career, and sold for $77,550 at Cowan’s in November 2011. The name for the gravity-defying composition is taken from the vocabulary of flamenco guitar. Courtesy Cowan’s+Clark+Delvecchio Auctions

Voulkos founded the pottery department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for many years. This unsigned unglazed stack pot was made in Berkeley in the 1960s and came from the collection of Steven Urry, a friend of the artist. The work brought $15,000 at Rago Auctions in 2012. Courtesy Rago Auctions 

Last Updated on Friday, 14 June 2013 09:47
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