The pleasures and pitfalls of collecting ceramics

The pleasures and pitfalls of collecting pottery
Lucie Rie’s graffito bowls

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Whatever it is — the feel of the clay, the roundness, the lustre — I find pottery hard to resist.

I am not discriminating, and do not pay enough attention to condition and provenance. My greatest prizes are a big-hipped, long-necked Ethiopian bottle in soft, black clay and a large studio ceramic by Jane Perryman, which I picked up in a flea market for less than £100 a decade ago. Neither the bottle nor the bowl, which is made of paper-thin smoky blue clay and balances precariously on a table waiting for a child to obliterate it, are worth much.

That is the downside of pottery as an investment: it continues to be affordable. But that is also the upside.

Pottery is often deemed domestic and functional — in fact, hardly art at all.

As an anthropology student in the 1980s, I was struck by a bunch of feminists who claimed pottery as their own. They called it the art of the kitchen and expounded on how women have kneaded, coiled, burnished and baked pots, much as they did bread, since the Neolithic revolution.

Many believe that pottery, particularly mud-coloured, rough stoneware or earthenware mugs and bowls, has less to do with artists than artisans.

They even say that about the (blue) jasperware and black basaltware of Josiah Wedgwood. The scientist, slave-trade abolitionist and supporter of the American revolution set up his kiln in the Potteries in Staffordshire. He was part of a ceramics movement “to create artistic and technological innovation”, in the words of Dr John Wall, who built the first Worcester porcelain factory in 1751. These reformists were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, inventing heat-proof tableware and democratising tea consumption with mass-produced but exquisitely painted tea sets. It is probably true, though, that they were more concerned with commerce than great art.

Perceptions began to change in the late 19th century with the Arts and Crafts movement. It revived traditional handicrafts and elevated the design of ordinary objects. The first anti-industrial British studio ceramicists emerged soon after, working in colonies to throw, sculpt and decorate individual pots as pieces of art. One of the first was Bernard Leach working in St Ives, Cornwall, where, having been influenced by Asian and medieval English forms, he philosophised about “the ethical pot”.

He was followed by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and came to Britain. Their work created new interest in ceramics in art colleges and studios. Galleries popped up all over Britain. These galleries now display the work of modern studio ceramicists such as Gabriele Koch.

Lucie Rie bottles

Interest dipped a little during the financial crisis but is resurgent. After a £6m redevelopment finished this year, York Art Gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art will display the largest collection of British studio ceramics in the country, including 10,000 bowls that make up an installation by Clare Twomey.

Works by Grayson Perry, winner of the Turner Prize, the UK art award, regularly go for £20,000 and he has done much to glamorise the medium. So too have Asian buyers prepared to pay huge prices throughout the financial crash.

This year Magdalene Odundo’s “Untitled 1991” went for £86,500 in New York, making it one of the most expensive works sold by a living British ceramicist. Her hand-built and burnished masterpieces, with their round bodies and angled necks, drive collectors into frenzies.

But she is the exception.

The market will be tested this month by an auction of 20th-century Japanese and British studio ceramics at Christie’s. Fifteen years ago, all the big auction houses held regular stand-alone sales of studio potters. These are rare now. So too are the regional auctions of blue and white Delft, Staffordshire figures and tin-glazed earthenware that were in fashion in the last century. The collectors stopped collecting, says Keith Heddle, head of investment at Stanley Gibbons, the auctioneers. “We are seeing growth in investment in rare coins, rare first edition books, contemporary art, not pottery [or] porcelain. In fact, many collecting fields such as blue and white pottery and Staffordshire figures are vanishing as an area of interest.”

“Prices are only now matching levels seen in 2005,” says Robin Stewart, a specialist in modern British ceramics at Sotheby’s. 

The “Made in Britain” sale held at Sotheby’s last month was deliberately designed to appeal to a broad audience, with estimates starting at a modest £150.

A spadeform vase by Hans Coper was expected to fetch up to £25,000 and went for £36,250.

Works by Lucie Rie did particularly well, but she has a wide fan base in Asia and Europe. One of her footed bowls went for £23,750 against a maximum estimate of £8,000. The estimate on a bottle, with a characteristic elegant long neck and flaring lip, was up to £8,000. It went for £18,750. 

But a Bernard Leach dish went for under £500.

Comparatively few ceramic artists come to auction, explains Stewart. “And there is a divide between what a piece goes for in a gallery and what it goes for at auction.” Galleries may charge hundreds of pounds for a relatively obscure ceramicist, but under the hammer even a Lucie Rie coffee pot might not reach £1,000.

Of course, for amateur collectors like me, that makes pottery the art of the possible.

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