A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust!

Last week I wrote about the "Etruscan Devil Mug" scam that was perpetrated on majolica collectors.
Here is another one that was not quite as successful but still raises its ugly head every once in a while.

The first major reproduction I ever saw of an Etruscan piece was the phony Lily Cheese Dome that surfaced about 15 years ago. This one was a reproduction from a Michael Strawser auction photo in a hack reference book Majolica American & European Wares that was released in 1994. That photo showed a rare pink Etruscan Lily Dome from Strawser's 1993 Fall auction. Within six months a ruddy rose colored "Lily" cheese bell appeared at auctions and antique malls everywhere. The reproduction was so poorly made that they didn't even bother to glaze the inside of the dome or the underside of the base. That small detail however didn't prevent outrageous price tags from being attached to it.

Take a look at the photo above. The reproduction is one the one on the left and the genuine article is on the right. To my eyes they aren't even close. That rusty rose color doesn't even exist in Etruscan Majolica, not to mention the bad modeling throughout.

At the time I was working as an antiques dealer in eastern Pennsylvania. Every once in a while I'd visit one of those big reproduction markets open only to dealers to see what new repros had entered the market. This was the first place I ever saw these awful things, selling for $15 each. They came in a box that referenced somewhere in Asia as the point of origin. When they started showing up in malls with $1000+ price tags attached to them I was just so appalled! In several instances I tried to inform the dealers that these were reproductions from Asia. Very few listened--in fact none. Most were quite arrogant and questioned my motives. After a while I just gave up.
For about three years these things flooded the market, then they slowly started to disappear. It gives me chills to think that they are sitting in collections all over the world with the owners being none the wiser.

If there was ever a good illustration of doing your homework before buying this is it. I can only hope no one was foolish enough to spend $1000 on it. Thank goodness they've just about disappeared off the market though they do surface every now and then. Hopefully the reference to them in my book will help prevent the ruse from being perpetrated further.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sometimes Even the Master Doesn't Get it Right

Let me preface this post by saying that I LOVE Martha Stewart.

I'll never forget the first, and only, time I ever met her. 
Her first book had come out and no one really knew who she was. I was working for a recherche little French housewares shop off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia called The Cook Nook. We carried her cookbook. 

As a promotion for the local restaurants, the city was trying to get off the ground a promotion that paired cookbook authors with restaurants around the city. An author would go into the restaurant's kitchen then prepare a meal from their own recipes to a special audience that purchased tickets to the event. All the proceeds went to charity.
The year that Martha's book came out she was invited as a new author to participate in the Cook and the Book promotion. That year they had a big book signing extravaganza at a local department store's gourmet food hall. As a member of the "business" I went to the big book signing to see some of the celebrity authors who were on hand to sell their cookbooks.

As I walked around the hall I saw a number of famous faces swarmed by admiring fans. Right in the center of all this activity was this gorgeous, statuesque blond with long hair standing all alone. I walked over to her and immediately recognized her from the photo on her cookbook, "Entertaining." She seemed bored and slightly annoyed that no one was speaking to her so I went over and made some small talk with her without mentioning that I had recognized her from the photo. After a few moments one of the "Cook and the Book" organizers came over to her and grabbed her attention away from me so I just wandered off to see the other famous faces in the room.

That was my one brief interaction with the Grand Dame of entertaining and dining. I still chuckle when I think of her all alone and rather sad standing unknown in that crowded department store food hall. My how things have changed for her!

Eight years later and Martha is now a household name with her own magazine. In the February 1992 issue of her magazine, Martha did a small piece on serving with majolica. She then created a food tribute to one of her favorite majolica patterns, Griffen, Smith and Company's Shell pattern. This cake, which she called Mocha Majolica was decorated in the Shell pattern. I have no idea what it tasted like but as a former professional cake decorator it looked like a train wreck if I ever saw one! I laughed so hard I had tears running down my face it was just so bad. I wish I had kept my copy of the issue because the photos of the majolica were lovely. Unfortunately it had this hideous "majolica" cake covering the pretty Shell dessert stand.

That recipe is still available on her Web site at marthastewart.com. It's accompanied by this mercifully small image of the "Majolica" Shell cake shown above. One of these days I'm going to make it to see if I have any better luck making it look like majolica than Martha. I bet it tastes much better than it looks!

If you'd like to try it yourself, Here's the link: http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/mocha-majolica.
Bon App├ętit!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mobile Majolica!

This post is directed at those of you reading this blog who are not familiar with my companion Web site, etruscanmajolica.com.

In an effort to remain current with the latest technology we've been working on making etruscanmajolica.com available by mobile devices. I'm currently upgrading the site so that regardless of which technique you choose to visit the site, you will have a maximized viewing experience.

This is particularly of concern in the "SEE" section of the site where I've posted videos of the various available forms that GSH majolica was made. These videos were originally created in HD for use in my GSH presentations. For Web use they needed to be reduced in size. We now have available on the site HD versions of the videos for viewing on your home computers as well as versions for 3G iPhone and iPod for viewing on mobile devices. A script on the Web site will determine which is best for your connection and display the right size accordingly.

We hope you'll take advantage of the upgraded videos now available by visiting the site.
Let me know what you think!

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Lesson Learned is a Lesson Well Worth the Cost

There's nothing new about counterfeit antiques. I imagine they've been around as long as people have collected objects. When I wrote my book on Etruscan Majolica I addressed one of the most common Etruscan fakes available.
The Etruscan "Devil Mug" as it was called, was one of the most successful phonies on the marketplace. You couldn't do a search on Google for Etruscan Majolica without bringing up at least a couple of photos of it. They were glazed in a few different colors and they were routinely selling on Ebay for $50 plus.

Because there was no definitive catalog of Etruscan Majolica in the marketplace at the time, collectors new to the majolica were buying them up by the hundreds. And why not? It looked legitimate to those who knew nothing of the company's work. It had an Etruscan mark on the base. It looked, well... Etruscan!

I'm sure that's exactly what the maker had in mind as he copied the English Bacchus loving cup design on which it is based. 

Bacchus loving cup original on which the reproduction is based.

He placed an Etruscan seal on the base. Voila, an instant antique!

When these first appeared on the marketplace about five years ago they were fooling even longtime collectors who were paying in excess of $150 for them on Ebay. When an Etruscan collector contacted me and asked me about them I assured her that they couldn't possibly be real. Not only were they sloppy and poorly made but the glazes didn't even remotely match known Etruscan glaze formulas. The biggest give away though was the mark on the bottom. Whoever took the time to copy the Etruscan mark, didn't have much of an eye for detail. Compare the mark above with the genuine mark below.

There's something very different about these two marks. In the counterfeit, the letters in the words ETRUSCAN MAJOLICA are raised from the background. In the genuine mark the letters are recessed. Of the thousands of examples of Etruscan Majolica I have seen in my lifetime I have never seen one with raised letters.

I'm happy to say that since my book was released these counterfeits have practically disappeared from the market. It may be too late for some newbies who were caught with the fakes but it is a lesson well worth the cost. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Majolica in the Movies: A Catered Affair

Last week I was flipping through channels on my TV and came upon an old movie from the 1950's, "A Catered Affair." I was familiar with the movie, which starred Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, but had never actually seen it. The prospect of watching Bette and Ernie in a love scene didn't particularly interest me, but I knew it had been recently turned into a Broadway musical with Harvey Fierstein which I found a little odd. The credits said that the screenplay was written by Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal, a strange combination if there ever was one, so my curiosity was piqued.

The movie is about the turmoil brought to a lower middle class family by Bette's desire to throw a big, fancy wedding for daughter Debbie Reynolds. The main subplot of the movie involves classic character actor Barry Fitzgerald who plays Bette's live-in uncle, deciding to marry an elderly widow, Mrs. Rafferty, basically to get out of Bette's house where he no longer feels welcome. Mrs. Rafferty's home is one of those peculiar Hollywood set concoctions, part Victorian home, part Miss Haversham. In the big scene where Barry Fitzgerald first hints to the widow that he may be open to a marriage proposal, Barry is sitting in the widow's home at the dining table. Clear as a bell right behind his head is a large Forester majolica cheese dome!

Dorothy Stickney and Barry Fitzgerald in A Catered Affair

Barry Fitzgerald in A Catered Affair.

It was such a pleasant surprise to see such a familiar piece in such an old movie.

Then I started to wonder whatever happened to it. In an odd coincidence one that looked exactly like it surfaced on Ebay this past week from a dealer in California who claimed it came from an old California estate. Could this be the same cheese dome that was in the movie? It might be a stretch to even consider it, as common as these cheese bells are but I couldn't help but be intrigued by the possibility. There's really no way to ever know for sure but wouldn't it be a hoot to know that something in your collection once appeared in a Bette Davis movie?

The things we collect have had many lives before they reached us. It would certainly be fascinating to know the stories behind some of them.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Antiques take a back seat to vacations as summer arrives

As the weather gets warmer the number of major antiques shows begin to dwindle in number. Summer is a bad time for antique sales, often upstaged by vacation plans and outdoor interests. It is a good time however for the antiques buyer. I've gotten some of my best antiques bargains during the summer months. The reasoning is simple -- as demand falls, prices fall with it. That fabulous George Jones oyster plate that you've been salivating over for months will most likely dip in price during the summer season, often as much as 50% as desperate dealers try to turn over stagnant inventory before the new fall antiques season. Dealers know that static inventory is dead inventory. Money is tied up in pieces that for whatever reason never sold. Better to sell at cost or even at a loss to free up that income for fresh merchandise.
The smart buyer knows this and will use it to their advantage as a bargaining tool during the summer months. This works to the advantage of the collector and the dealer alike.

So, instead of ignoring that antiques mall that you love to visit during the fall and the spring, stop on in and look around once or twice during the summer. You may be surprised what bargains you may find.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Showbiz and the Antiques Roadshow

I have to admit that I love watching the Antiques Roadshow on PBS.

It's not quite as much fun as the British version shown on BBC America but it's an interesting way to pass an hour. For those of us who keep up with the antiques market it's always a laugh to see the prices placed on the items at the end of each evaluation. It's not that the prices are necessarily incorrect in the general sense, but the values are always couched in such ridiculous ways to inflate them far beyond what one may realistically expect in the antiques world.
Such phrases as "well advertised auction," "retail shop," and "insurance value" are intentionally downplayed on screen to give the illusion that a piece has greater value than it really does.

For one thing I doubt if many people outside of the antiques business know that "insurance value" is generally double, or more, the real value of an object. The reasoning behind this is that many pieces are unique or practically unique so that replacement is practically impossible.
Here is the definition of "insurance value" from the Antiques Roadshow Web site:

"Insurance values tend to be set at the top end of retail value. That is done ... so that those who need to replace goods lost to theft or to accident will have enough insurance money to buy an equivalent item from a dealer at current prices.

Thus, an insurance value is based on the price you might find for an object in what the IRS defines as a "reasonable time" — usually not the price you might get after bargain hunting for months. Unlike retail and auction values, which are often verbal, appraisers issue insurance values as formal written appraisals. People pay for these appraisals, because they must be carefully researched and hold up to legal challenges."

To someone casually watching the Roadshow this nuance of appraisal will just slip by unnoticed, obliterated by the excitement of the high value quoted.

The same happens when they use the phrase "well advertised auction."
In this case they are factoring in a competitive market that has two or more insatiable bidders competing against each other to inflate the price of an object. How many times have you been to an auction where a common piece sells for three times its retail value to the horror of the audience?
This has nothing to do with the real world value of the object. You are dealing with a rare situation where a piece's value is inflated far beyond its value to achieve the desired reaction from the audience.

The term "retail shop" is somewhat more understandable to those not in the trade, but is still deceptive by inflating the value. Retail value can be anything from 10% above the wholesale price to 200% above the wholesale price. Giving someone a retail value tells them absolutely nothing about what an owner can expect to receive for such an item.

In the end it's more about achieving the desired response of awe in the greedy eyes of the owner of the object on screen than informing the viewer about the real value objects.
If you want to know the genuine value of an object shown on Roadshow a good guide is to cut the "appraised" value given at the conclusion of the appraisal by 33%-50%. That's usually the real world value of a piece.

Antiques Roadshow is a lot of fun but it's hardly an informational reality show. It's just entertainment, all about showbiz.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

For those ornithologists with £80,000 just lying around the house

One of the subjects at the Dallas Majolica Convention that drew a lot of discussion was the upcoming auction of a Minton majolica peacock at Christie's in London this September.

There are only a handful of these peacocks in existence and for many collectors it is the ULTIMATE majolica acquisition. I can't say it really does anything for me personally but to be fair I've never seen one in person. I'm told the detail is stunning. That having been said the upcoming peacock is missing the cock's comb on the head of the bird. Christie's is having the comb restored before the auction so the buyer need not feel cheated by it's absence. The bird is expected to reach a price of £50,000-£80,000. That's $116,242 in real money!

So what if the dog knocks it over? You can always buy one of the remaining five.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Every journey begins with a single step

In January I received a surprising phone call from one of the officers of the Majolica International Society. I was asked if I would be interested in speaking on American majolica at their convention in Dallas. I wasn't sure I wanted to do it at first -- I hadn't been on an airplane in almost 20 years -- but after speaking to friends and family I was persuaded to go.

Well, I just returned from that trip and I'm so glad I went! It was not only my first trip on an airplane in 19 years, it was also my first trip to the majolica convention since my years as an antiques dealer. As successful as those trips as a dealer were, this one as a guest was much more fun! The presentation I gave was greeted with such a wonderful response and the people were so warm and friendly. I was actually rather shocked.

The Majolica International Society has unfairly developed a rather bad reputation as a group of wealthy elitists. My experience this past week showed me that this is a passionate group of collectors who are eager to share their love of majolica with others of like mind regardless of income. Wealthy, yes, there's little doubt that the majority there are quite well off, but that doesn't make them elitists. If anything the general consensus of the members is that they are quite unhappy that collectors of more modest means have shunned their conventions of late. In fact, my invitation as a speaker was intended to attract more modestly fixed collectors who might not have the means to collect the more expensive European majolica that is usually the focus of these gatherings. I don't think they were successful in doing that but it was just as well as there was barely a piece of American majolica for sale at the entire Majolica Heaven show.

I'm hoping that this is about to change. Next year's convention is going to be held in Philadelphia. Philly is easily accessible by car to a large number of collectors from all over the East Coast. This should attract collectors of more modest means who are interested in majolica. It is just around the corner from Phoenixville, the home of Etruscan Majolica. There are many Etruscan collectors in these parts and the dealers setting up would be foolish to not capitalize on that. It is also near the Hatboro auction gallery that is the home of Michael Strawser's two annual majolica auctions.

I don't know if the convention is being planned to coincide with one of those majolica auctions but it seems to me that it would be a mistake not to. I know that the dealers who set up at Majolica Heaven are not in favor of doing so but failing to offer the auction as a convention activity is the equivalent of not passing a health care bill because it doesn't favor the bottom line of the insurance companies. What is more important, the hundreds of members of the Society or the bottom line of the half dozen dealers who set up at the show? I'm not saying that keeping the dealers happy isn't important. They are, after all, the suppliers of all the wonderful things we collect, but they wouldn't have a business if there were no collectors to buy these things and the audience for this pottery is getting older and older. Unless younger collectors are encouraged to join the group by making available less expensive pieces that they can afford, in a few years there will be no one left to sell to.
The truth is that these dealers are hardly going to be affected by the Strawser Auction. Strawser's auctions attract buyers from all levels of the income spectrum. Majolica Heaven currently attracts buyers from the wealthiest 10%. For the dealers to complain about having the auction the same weekend as the convention is really just greed on their part.

If the Majolica Society wants to attract a broader audience they're headed in the right direction. Let us just hope that the dollar sign doesn't affect the real bottom line, the future of the Majolica International Society.