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

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.

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