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

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.

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