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

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Your House Beautiful with Majolica

Yesterday we posted some lovely majolica photos from the Country Living Web site. Today, we go to the House Beautiful Web site for some wonderful examples of decorating with majolica. I think all of these interiors blend the bold colors of majolica effortlessly into the surroundings, not an easy thing to do!

For more examples of decorating with majolica, go to the House Beautiful Web site: http://www.housebeautiful.com/

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Photographic Art of Majolica Tea Ware

I recently came across a lovely collection of photographs of majolica tea ware by New York commercial photographer Wendell T. Weber. The photos were commissioned by Country Living Magazine and appear on their Web site.

For more photographs go to the Web exclusive article on the Country Living Web site: http://www.countryliving.com/antiques/what-to-collect/tea-sets-web-exclusive-0308?click=main_sr

For more beautiful commercial work from Wendell T. Webber go to his Web site at: http://www.wendelltwebber.com/

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Packing Up

I'm in the rather unenviable position of packing up all my majolica for an upcoming move. I hate packing majolica because the body is so soft, the slightest miscalculation and you have a chipped piece. Special care should always be taken with it.
Years of traveling around the country doing antique shows has made me an expert on such things though I hardly enjoy it.

Things I've learned about packing pottery:

1) Never pack plates lying down. Always position them up as if standing on their rim. That prevents any undue weight from cracking the lower plates. Plate edges are remarkable strong while the flat part is the most vulnerable part of the plate. Always allow for plenty of cushion between plates.
2) Hollowware is safest when packed upside down or on it's side. It keeps undue stress from pushing into it.
3) Always allow a 2"-3" cushion at the bottom and the top of the box to absorb any impact. When that carton buckles in from all the other boxes stacked on top of it, you'll be glad you left that cushion.
4) Always pack lids with the base. I learned this one the hard way. I lost the base to a cheese dome at an antique show when the box containing it was accidentally taken by the neighboring dealer's movers. I had to drive all the way to St. Louis from Atlanta to pick it up for my next show, and then the dealer blamed me for inconveniencing him!
5) Regardless of whether it is being shipped professionally or being carried in your own two hands you should never hear any movement when you shake the boxes. Everything should be absolutely solid. If you can hear noise than you need more packing. Remember the post office rule whenever packing: "If you can shake it, we can break it."

Moving is never pleasant but even if I have professional movers packing up the whole house I would still pack my majolica myself, and carry it to my new home with my own hands.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


“Madness is badness of spirit, 
when one seeks profit from all sources”

Having done the "dealer thing" I know how slim profit margins can be in antiques. I don't think, however that gives the dealer license to do whatever he needs to increase those profits. There are such things as ethics and something called greed.

I'm reminded of the very first majolica auction I went to. It was held at a local auction house that had a reputation for getting the finest Etruscan Majolica in the area. This day there was a rather large majolica collection under the hammer. I was both excited at all the wonderful things that were available and nervous because I had never bid at auction before. I set my sights on a really lovely Etruscan Cauliflower cup and saucer that had come from a famous collection. I got my bidding number and waited patiently for the lot to come around. When it came time to sell the cup and saucer, the auctioneer decided to break the set up and sell the two parts individually. I was really upset but I had set my sites on the Cauliflower pieces and I was not going home without them.

First up was the saucer. I put my hand up and never put it down. My thinking was that if I got the saucer the bidders would defer to me on the cup. I paid the, then outrageous, price of $125 plus commission on the saucer. I was upset that it had gone so high but was happy to have the first half of my prize. Then the cup came up for bid.
The bidders did not defer to me in the least. The cost of the cup skyrocketed to $225, more than I could possibly afford at the time. I was devastated. I went home with my super expensive saucer and sulked. 

I learned a lesson that day-- to never bid on part of a set, because the chance of getting the matching part is anything but certain. To this day I will not bid on a part of a set that has been unethically split apart to milk maximum profit.

This brings us back to today.
This afternoon I was looking on line and I saw two listings of Wedgwood on sale on one of the on line auction services. One listing was for a Wedgwood salad bowl. The second listing was for the matching majolica salad servers. My stomach twisted into a knot. I was so appalled that a dealer out of sheer greed would split the lot in two, as did the auctioneer with that cauliflower cup and saucer, to maximize their profit. It made me nauseous. What's next, selling the lid and the base to a cheese dome separately to make a bigger profit?

I have seen more and more of this sort of thing at auction lately and it disturbs me. To destroy a historically sound set for the sake of profit is the lowest type of profit grabbing and tells us something about the ethics of these times. 

Yes, we are dealers, but we are also purveyors and guardians of our collective history. To destroy part of that history for the sake of profit is repugnant and something that we have an obligation to future generations to avoid.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The One That Got Away

Talk to any collector or antiques dealer and you are guaranteed to find that every one has a story of the one that got away; that is the one antique they regretted not buying when they had the chance. The circumstances usually involve a case of indecision, of getting somewhere too late or being unwilling to dole out the cost being asked.

Well, I have one of these stories too.
Mine goes back to my early days as a majolica buyer, long before I learned to never walk away from something wonderful.

The date is 1987. A dealer I had dealt with was doing an antiques show at a small college north of Philadelphia. I drove out to see the show with the hope that the dealer might have found something I might like.  I was one of the first people in line for the show and patiently waited until the doors were  opened to the public. I ran into the show to my friend's booth and was terribly disappointed to find that she had found nothing new since I had last seen her.
With no other dealers that I knew doing the show I just started casually walking through the booths.

Most of the antiques dealers handled 19th century American furniture and Asian ceramics, the sort of things you see a lot of in the Philadelphia area. One dealer in a corner booth though caught my eye. In the middle of a lot of country antiques there were two pieces of majolica sitting on a table.

The first one I picked up was a small candle holder in the shape of a flower. At the base of the flower was a small match box with a butterfly lid. I examined the piece carefully and was pleased to see it was in good condition. The price, I noted was $285, a little higher than I really wanted to spend that day but I could manage it if I really wanted it.

Sitting next to it was a plain pond lily plate. I put the candle holder down and picked up the pond lily plate. I was surprised to see on the reverse that it was marked Etruscan. I had never seen an Etruscan version of this common plate and was fascinated by it. Unfortunately it had a bad hairline crack that ran halfway through the plate. The dealer had a price tag on the plate of $90. I couldn't justify the price given the condition so I just walked away from the booth.

I continued walking around the show but just couldn't get these two pieces out of my mind, so I turned around and went back to the booth. When I got there I picked up the Etruscan plate again. As I continued examining the pond lily plate an elderly couple walked over to where I was standing, picked up the candle holder, looked at it for a moment, then took it to the dealer to start negotiations for a better price.
I was a little disappointed to have lost the chance to buy it but decided the candle holder was probably more money then I should spend anyway so I went back and continued looking at the plate. Again I just couldn't rationalize the price of the plate so I put it down. The couple bought the candle holder and left the booth happy as I continued to wander around the show. I eventually went home empty handed.

I later regretted not buying that candle holder because it was so unusual and so pretty, but it was another year or so before I realized the enormity of my error in judgment that day. Inside the then new Karmason-Stacke Majolica book I saw a drawing of the candle holder. The caption below identified it as part of the George Jones butterfly dresser series. It turns out to be one of the hardest pieces to find in the series and today is highly sought by collectors. It has a value of several thousand dollars.

I'm told that one never learns by their successes, only their mistakes. That was probably the single most expensive mistake I have made in my 25 years of buying majolica.

Oh, and that Etruscan plate that I was so entranced by? Twenty three years later it still sells for around $90.
And now you know the rest of the story.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Handled Majolica Baskets

Majolica baskets are such a large topic that I don't know where to start!

I've already tackled this subject twice before, one in my discussion of egg baskets (http://etruscanmajolica.blogspot.com/2010/08/majolica-egg-baskets.html) and once while showing strawberry servers ( http://etruscanmajolica.blogspot.com/2010/08/strawberry-servers-forever.html). Both forms include a number of baskets.

The inclusion of wicker as a majolica subject goes back to some of the earliest majolica pieces created by Minton.
It seems only natural that handled baskets would ultimately appear in majolica as well. From the stately workrooms of Minton to the homespun Etruscan Works in Phoenixville, there are baskets of all shapes and sizes, though not all are an imitation of wicker. Take, for example the fanciful French Art Nouveau basket below.

Most baskets, however, are indeed imitations of wicker...

or leaves...

or bird's nests...

or fish!

One thing that all of these baskets share in common is their delicacy. Unlike real baskets, ceramic baskets are easily damaged. When buying baskets always examine the area where the handle joins the body. This is the area most likely to break and the area most likely to have a repair.
Regardless of whether a basket has a repair or not NEVER hold the piece by the handle. Doing so is just asking for trouble.

Some baskets are marked, like these Holdcroft baskets...

 ...or these Wedgwood baskets...

 ...or these George Jones baskets...

 ...or these Minton baskets...

...or these Etruscan baskets...

...but most are not.

It really is quite remarkable that so many of these delicate baskets still exist, more than a hundred years after they were created. I think this speaks of how much these were loved and cared for since they were new.

How could anyone resist them filled with candy or flowers!