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

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cleaning Majolica

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cleaning antique pottery like the piece above, those who prefer to leave it as found and those who prefer to have a piece that looks almost new.

Many collectors like the look of stained majolica. For them, the staining is part of the piece's history and shouldn't be altered. On the other hand, those who favor a piece that has been cleaned are rewarded with richer, more vibrant color and a closer approximation of the maker's actual intention in designing the piece. As a dealer, I found it was much easier to sell cleaned majolica than stained majolica so I've always been in the "clean majolica" camp.

Majolica is made from a soft, porous, earthenware body that is easily damaged and easily stained. It's very difficult to find a piece new to the market that doesn't have some degree of staining in it. Fat and sugar seem to be the biggest culprits when it comes to ware that was originally meant for use in dining.
I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've come across sugar bowls that are virtually black in color while their lids are pristine in color. The same condition can be frequently seen in teapots. In both cases the stain has absorbed into the base container while the lid, since it has no real contact with the contents are usually free of discoloration.
Butter pats are notorious for the bad condition in which they are often found. Creamers and platters are also frequently discolored by staining from fats.
The darker the glaze color, the less of an effect the staining has on the majolica but I have found that all of them can benefit from cleaning.

Cleaning majolica is actually a very simple process that doesn't hurt the piece at all if it is done correctly. This is the process I use. Proceed at your own risk! (disclaimer over)

Before deciding if you want to clean a piece of stained majolica, you need to be certain that you are dealing with a piece that has no repair. Cleaning will remove any repair so if you suspect repair you're best to leave the piece alone or take it to a professional who will fix the repair after the cleaning.
If you are certain you want to proceed with the cleaning you need only six things: an oven, a cookie sheet, a covered, non-metallic container for the vessel or plate to be cleaned, surgical gloves to protect your hands, goggles to protect your eyes and hydrogen peroxide.

Over the years I have used many strengths of hydrogen peroxide to clean majolica. My favorite was a 115 volume clear peroxide I bought in bulk from a beauty supply house, but I have also used strengths of 100 volume, 80 volume and 20 volume that I have bought over the counter at beauty suppliers. The higher the volume, the quicker the cleaner will work but they all work basically the same way. You just need to be sure you are buying the clear peroxide and not the creme peroxide.

Peroxide is a dangerous chemical bleach so when you're using it be sure to use the greatest caution. Avoid contact with your skin because it BURNS, and always wear gloves when you are handling peroxide. It is best practice to also wear goggles when handling it, in case it should splash.

With gloves and goggles on, place the piece to be cleaned inside a container in which the piece can be completely submerged. For plates and platters I find plastic cake carriers turned upside down work very well. For pitchers, plastic beverage containers work well. What ever you use make sure that it has no leaks and a tight cover.

Pour enough of the peroxide into the container to cover the piece then close the container.
Now you leave the peroxide to do its work. In time the peroxide will seep into the pottery and dissolve the stain in the piece. It will also force the fat out of the pottery, but all this takes time. The longer you leave the piece to soak, the cleaner it gets. I usually leave it to soak one or two weeks for a mildly stained piece and a month or more for a more heavily stained piece.

After the soaking period has concluded, remove the piece from the peroxide (gloves on) and dry it lightly with a paper towel. Place the piece onto a cookie sheet (I find jelly roll pans work best) and put it into the center rack of your oven. Then you bake the piece at 175 degrees for 30 minutes. The baking forces the remaining stain out of the piece. I would suggest running your exhaust fan during the baking as the smell that results is most unpleasant.
Remove the piece from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature.

When you remove the piece from the oven you will find that a lot of brown crud has formed on the surface of the piece. If the discharge is oily, wipe as much off as you can right away or it will partially be reabsorbed by the pottery.. Once the piece has cooled to room temperature, carefully wash it under running water. The brown crud will come right off.

That's it! If there is remaining stain you can repeat the process until it is completely clean. The peroxide can be used a number of times before it becomes depleted.

Many people are reluctant to bake the piece in the oven after soaking. You don't really need to do it to get a clean piece but I find that if you do not bake it a certain amount of the stain will slowly return over time.
Good luck!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fun With Majolica

I found these two files on an old hard drive. I created them for t-shirts.
They were the files that taught me how to work Photoshop and Illustrator so many years ago.

Ahhhhh, memories!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Water Lilies everywhere!

One of the most commonly found themes in majolica is the water lily. Not to be confused with the water hyacinth, which didn't appear in the West until the 1884 International Cotton Exhibition in New Orleans, the water lily has been part of majolica iconography from the beginning.

Perhaps it's the beauty of the single flower floating on the water amongst elegantly formed flat leaves that caused the attraction. In any event the water lily was a well established form in the English conservatories that were often the home for large majolica pieces. Minton's famous St. George fountain, made for the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1862, was festooned with water lilies.

In fact, it's difficult to find a Minton conservatory piece that doesn't reference them in some way or another.

Water lilies were also common at the dining table with servers and center pieces of all kinds featuring the pink tipped white flower and flat leaves. In fact the flat leaves were perfect for serving dishes.

This interest in the water lily transferred to the New World when majolica took the U.S. by storm in the 1870's. Both the Chesapeake Pottery and the firm of Griffen, Smith and Hill created their own versions of the water lily plate by closely copying one of the English patterns.

The difference between the Etruscan version and the English one is that the American plate is much more colorful than the English ones.

In fact the English plates, which are much more common than the American, are often confused by newbies as unmarked Etruscan. The Chesapeake Pottery treatment is distinctive to the company's unique handling of majolica.

The sole American pond lily dessert stand, by the Phoenixville Pottery  is one of the rarest pieces made by the company, while the English stands came in any number of different sizes and forms.

Most Etruscan pieces are marked so the likelihood of finding an "unmarked Etruscan" example is pretty small. The reverse is always one of the standard Etruscan reverse treatments.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oysters a la Mode

One of my fondest memories of living in Philadelphia was meeting friends for lunch at the old Sansom Street Oyster House in the heart of the business district. It was like walking into a time warp. With the detailed wood paneled walls and old wood bar and booths, it looked like it hadn't changed since 1920. At lunch time it was always packed with business men in $1000 suits and imported silk ties negotiating business deals on their company's dime.

You didn't go to the SSOH for the food, that was always very basic oysters on the half shell and various other Surf-and-Turf items, you went for the ambiance.
This cool, dark, men's club-like atmosphere was punctuated with brightly colored oyster plates that ran around the restaurant on a plate rail at the perimeter of the paneling. There were almost 500 oyster plates up on that rail, many of them majolica. Front and center was a gorgeous turquoise Wedgwood fish platter.

That was almost 20 years ago.

The SSOH has since undergone two changes in ownership and bankruptcy proceedings. The current owners, descendants of the original owners, the Mink family, closed the restaurant in 2008 for an overhaul.

The new Oyster House, as it is now known, is now open and looks nothing like the old one. It is a clean, modern interior with a large raw bar front and center. The new emphasis is on the food as the old Surf-and-Turf has been updated with contemporary flair and a lighter touch. Add to this a young staff, a high quality cocktail bar, and an impressive wine list and the old relic is now ready to take on a new century.

One thing that hasn't changed though, are the oyster plates. The collection has been thinned down to 200 now but they still grace the walls of the restaurant in a new, more modern way.

And that gorgeous Wedgwood majolica fish platter is still there, visible in the photo above, front and center where it should be

I'll miss the old SSOH, but it's good to see those oyster plates back up on the wall where they belong.
Maybe they'll inspire a new generation of collectors like they inspired me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Dilemma of Majolica Auctions and Ebay

When I first joined Ebay in June of 1998 it was a phenomenal place to buy and sell majolica. Not only did you have access to things you'd otherwise never see, but there was a whole audience out there for things that didn't sell well in your geographic area. The prices were often great because people hadn't yet learned how to snipe auctions at the last second and you would get great deals on things. Ebay's fees were quite reasonable too.

Those things started to change when Ebay decided there were too many reserve auctions so they started to charge ridiculous prices for auctions with reserves. Their auction fees continued to rise to the point where it became no longer viable for many dealers to sell there, me among them. If you're only making a 10% markup on something, why would you allow Ebay to take half of that, not to mention the expense of mailing and dealing with the mail carriers?

I stopped selling majolica on Ebay regularly quite a few years ago. Every once in a while I'll test the waters and throw something on there to see how the market responds but it's rarely worthwhile anymore. The only regular selling I do on Ebay is for my books, Etruscan Majolica: The Majolica of Griffen, Smith & Company, Volumes 1+2.  That's really just for promotional purposes anyway to let people know the book is out there. I make very little profit on those Ebay sales.

Regular auctions are generally more profitable than Ebay but it really depends where you consign. Michael Strawser has made a nice little business out of selling majolica with Majolica Auctions. His auctions are usually well attended and well advertised. If you have something special or unique to sell, his auctions are the usually the way to go. He gets very good prices for the seller, especially for European majolica.

If you're selling American majolica, like Etruscan, or more common pieces that may have their share of bumps and bruises, you're better off putting it into a well advertised local auction. So many Etruscan collectors have complained about Strawser's attitude towards American and unmarked majolica but you really can't blame the guy. He goes where the money is. He's just making a business decision by lumping the pieces into lots and offering them the day before his main sale to a smaller audience. His Friday auctions are a great place to buy if you're looking for bargains, but an awful place to sell because the pieces often bring a fraction of what they'd bring at a general sale.

It helps to know where the audience is for your majolica as well. Phoenixville pieces will sell better in Pennsylvania. Morley pieces will sell better in Ohio, and Eureka Pieces will sell better in New Jersey. It's a pretty simple formula.

The prices have come down quite a bit since the late 80's when I first started buying majolica but these things are cyclical. This is a good time to buy at auction. The prices are bound to go up again.

Regardless of where you buy or sell it, DO IT!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Massier Takes its Place Among the Best

It's funny how things catch on in the antiques world. For many years absolutely no one paid attention to French majolica. It was a purchased by a few collectors but largely ignored by the general majolica collecting population.
In the past few years that has changed dramatically.

While the Sarreguemines name always had some cache among majolica buyers, Massier is now one of the hottest names in majolica collecting.
The Dallas Auction Gallery sold a large Massier piece in May in the shape of a donkey for $3,500. The subject was unusual for Massier, which usually concentrates on flowers, frogs and birds, but the price is what surprised me. This firmly places Massier in the same price league as Minton and George Jones. That's sort of nice to see because Massier has a distinctly French look about it with a slightly rustic character, very different from the large English potteries.
It's a company that did beautiful work, so it's nice to see it finally being appreciated by the majolica community.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why Majolica?

People are always asking me why I like majolica.

I first heard the term "majolica" in 1984 when I was working in a small French housewares shop in Philadelphia. It was an extraordinary little store that combined the latest in contemporary housewares with charming and unique European merchandise and antiques collected by the owner for sale at the store. Periodically, the owner would take shopping trips to Europe to bring interesting inventory to the store. One summer, she brought back a number of contemporary dessert wares from France that she called "majolica." It fascinated me by its quaintness and bright colors.

The majolica she brought back that summer sold very quickly and she reordered regularly to meet the demand of the upscale clientele of the shop.
Have you ever noticed how often you hear a new word once you've learned it? This happened to me with majolica. After seeing the dessert wares at the shop I started to notice majolica everywhere, in gift shops, in antiques shops, at department stores. I began to see it wherever I went and became more and more intrigued by it. Aside from the colors, the whimsical nature of the ware attracted me. I saw teapots shaped like cauliflowers, dishes shaped like leaves and compotes shaped like dolphins. It wasn't long before I bought my first piece, a begonia leaf dish at an antiques show in a mall.

I was hooked.

Twenty-five years later it still fascinates me. The huge volume of it made in the last half of the 19th century has made every majolica search a new lesson to learn. I have seen hundreds of thousands of pieces over the years yet I am still regularly surprised by things I've never seen before.

It's a passion, a teacher, an addiction and a hobby.

Oh, and it's pretty to look at too!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Not Everything That Looks Like Majolica Is Really Majolica

Any regular on the auction scene knows that general auctions pieces that are sometimes listed as majolica, aren't majolica.

One of these most commonly found items are the wonderful antique game terrines made in France by Pillivuyt. These gorgeous terrines were made by the company for quite a long time. I think I once read that they started production around 1890. I know I remember seeing them for sale new at Bridge Kitchenware on the upper east side of New York and Dean and DeLuca in Soho when I first got out of college in the 1970's. They were always very expensive, about $100 each, and came in a variety of sizes and forms. (The number on the base will tell you what size it is. They were numbered from 1-5 with five being the largest.) The company stopped making then around 1990 but they have retained their popularity on the secondary market often bringing several times their original cost at auction.

But as lovely as these are, they aren't majolica, they are enameled porcelain. That isn't to say that they don't compliment majolica well. Because most majolica was intended for use in dining service, these terrines fit in quite nicely on a table with majolica serving pieces. I've bought a number of them myself over the years and find them both decorative and functional. They are oven safe and quite hardy for their intended use, unlike the more fragile majolica terrines we see.

So if you see them advertised as majolica feel free to let the auctioneer know their true nature, then go ahead and buy them up!
They never fail to grab attention at a beautifully set buffet!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Majolica Spotlight: Wedgwood Argenta

Until about 20 years ago very few people had ever heard of the name "Argenta."

It was in Maureen Batkin's book on Wedgwood, Wedgwood Ceramics 1846-1959, published in England in 1982 that the term first appeared. It described a particular kind of majolica color palette that became popular with the factory in the 1870's. In fact it was a trade name used by the company to distinguish majolica with this color palette from all the others.
Pieces in Argenta had ivory grounds with details in various pastel tones of taupe, yellow, rose and lilac. Some majolica patterns were specifically created with the color palette in mind so finding examples in other colors are nearly impossible to find. It was the company's response to changing tastes in Victorian England where the deeper colors of earlier majolica were starting to fall out of favor. 

It must have been a great success because soon most patterns in the company's catalog were being glazed in this manner. Other companies soon started to copy Wedgwood's success and this majolica with ivory grounds and pastel decoration started to appear on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Ironically, this majolica that was so popular in the 1870's and 1880's is looked down upon by most serious majolica collectors today. The reason is simple: most people buy majolica for the bright colors and Argenta is the least colorful of them all.
It seems to me that this is rather unfair because the Argenta color palette is quite beautiful on its own. As an occasional piece in a more colorful collection it stands out for it's sophisticated beauty. In a group with other pieces of Argenta it has a clean, modern look that the more colorful majolica pieces lack.

Below I've borrowed photos of some pieces from our friends at Trilogy Antiques to show the differences between Argenta and conventionally glazed pieces. By the way, all of these pieces are for sale online at www.emajolica.com.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Majolica Ephemera

Here's another bit of odd majolica memorabilia that surfaced on Ebay recently: a majolica manufacturer's postcard promotion.
I just wish it had some majolica pictured.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Major Majolica

I have no idea what a march has to do with majolica but I was amused by this piece of sheet music from 1878.