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

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Majolica Spolight: Rose and Rope

One of the most commonly available patterns to the majolica collector is one by an unknown English manufacturer known as Rose and Rope. Though we don't know who created the pattern, it certainly must have been a successful one considering the large number pieces that have survived today.

The pattern has a budding wild rose against a basketweave ground in a variety of colors. A rope wrapped around the pattern pieces divides the ground into quarters.
All of the flat pieces have a cobalt center, but the basketweave surrounding it can be yellow, cobalt, gray, turquoise or brown.

The pattern is quite reasonably priced in general with plates selling under $100 and serving pieces like teapots and compotes selling for around $300. Pieces with a cobalt basketweave ground sell for about 50% more than that of the other colors.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Case of the Curious Strawberry Pitcher

When you're buying on the secondary market, it's always a good idea to maintain a certain degree of skepticism about the authenticity of the object you're buying.

In the early 1990's I was a relative fledgling antiques dealer specializing in majolica. I had been buying for a few years by this time, but not a real seasoned professional by any means. As is typical for antiques dealers I traveled around the USA quite a bit, driving from antique show to antique show, setting up my wares and buying as I came across things.

On one of my trips to the Metrolina Antiques Show in Charlotte, North Carolina I saw a large, very heavy majolica pitcher that I had never seen before. It was cobalt blue with large, three dimensional strawberries on it and a stippled background. I picked up the piece and examined it. There was something about it that wasn't quite right but I couldn't really put my finger on it.  It had some wear and some dirt on it and was heavily crazed throughout. The underside showed dirt on the unglazed foot, a good sign that a piece had been around for a while. As I recall, the price was around $345. Since that seemed to be more of retail price than wholesale price I passed on the pitcher and continued my rounds through the fair grounds.

After about an hour of walking around the fair I came across a second example of the same pitcher but in a bright opaque yellow glaze. Again, I picked up the pitcher and examined it. Like the first one it was very heavy for its size and showed crazing and dirt throughout. The price of this one I believe was around $385. I put the pitcher down and after a bit left the fair grounds for my next stop, Atlanta, Georgia.
I spent the week antiquing my way through Atlanta before hitting the Scott Antiques Show the following weekend. To make a long story short, in that time I saw three more of these pitchers in turquoise, brown and green.

I knew something was up. Here was a pitcher pattern that I had never seen before and it was suddenly everywhere. When I returned to Pennsylvania I started to see the same pitcher at various antiques shows, handled by some very well known majolica dealers. Soon the pitcher was showing up everywhere, from flea markets to the antique show of the Majolica International Society, Majolica Madness.

By this time I was convinced that it had to be a reproduction, but one done by someone who was very careful to add signs of age to it with the dirt and crazing. Still, the piece was selling like hotcakes throughout the majolica circuit, usually selling for about $350-500 a piece. The word on the street was that this was new "old" stock that had been discovered shuttered in a warehouse for many, many years.

I just didn't buy it.

Soon afterwards two different pitchers and an oyster plate surfaced that had identical characteristics to the strawberry pitcher. One pitcher was a very large pitcher with a stork on it that had been pictured in one of the Marks Majolica books and the other, a huge pitcher with a stippled body and bunch of fruit at the neck. The oyster plate was an identical copy of the palissy plate shown below but in a blue, green and yellow color palette.

The pitcher with the fruit was easy to dismiss because it was another pattern no one else had ever seen--though that didn't stop it from selling very well at antique shows and fairs.
The other two were more troubling. These were copies of real majolica patterns--very, very good copies.

When word got around that these copies were in circulation it completely destroyed the market for the genuine articles. Soon, knowledgeable dealers refused to carry the pitcher and oyster plate because they couldn't tell the difference between the real thing and the reproduction. For many years the patterns became pariahs with many dealers refusing to handle them.

Eventually all four of the pieces started to disappear and within a generation had succeeded in being absorbed into collections with many of the purchasers none the wiser. Today these pieces show up in dealers booths and auctions and generally command very good prices from those who don't know the history of the patterns

This is where the story should end, but it doesn't!

On one of my trips down South a few years ago, I came upon a dealer's booth filled with the fish oyster plates. The dealer handled real majolica but these plates were being sold as new for $35 a piece. When I asked the dealer about them I was told that they were buying them directly from the manufacturer, a tiny pottery in South Carolina, run by a gentleman with whom they had an exclusive contract.
Soon the pieces of the puzzle started to come together for me.

These reproductions that were being potted in the South were being purchased as new and working their way up the East coast as antiques. They were being sold as antiques by people who were either unintentionally or intentionally misled. Considering the care with which these pieces were "aged" I suspect it was the latter. I never did find out who that potter in South Carolina was but it gives me a cold chill to know that these reproductions, to this day, have fooled hundreds if not thousands of people into adding them to their collections. This is why I always tell new collectors to buy from dependable sources who know what they're selling.

An interesting post script to all this.
Recently other potteries that make reproductions of majolica have started copying the reproductions, probably without knowing they were reproductions in the first place.

Both the large strawberry pitcher and the blue, palissy oyster plate have hundreds of copies of them floating around out there.

In an odd way you could say, what goes around comes around.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mottahedeh Majolica Reproductions

I first became aware of Mottahedeh's majolica reproductions I think in the late 80's. The first one I can actually recall seeing was the Minton server copy above. It fooled me into thinking it was real, that is, until I turned it over and saw the dark blue Mottahedeh stamp on the base. I must admit I was quite impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship and their ability to match the Minton glazes so well.
After that I started so see them around here and there.
Among their earliest designs the company produced a line of gift wares based on George Jones Cherry Blossom pattern--a teapot, honey pot, plates and mugs all done in the distinctive George Jones style. They also had a line of wares based on the English apple and pear plates.

These weren't cheap reproductions by any means. They were well made and hand panted in Italy for the American gift market, and their cost could reach into the hundreds of dollars.

In the ensuing years they've created a number of reproductions of well known, and not so well known majolica pieces. All of these are clearly, permanently marked with the Mottahedeh stamp and are sold new with a short history of the original piece.

Mottahedeh has been in the business of creating original and historical reproduction china for the better part of 75 years. They specialize in museum copies of blue and white Chinese porcelain export china but have a broad range of products that include crystal, silver and tableware. Their history with majolica goes back to their origins. In the 1950's and 1960's they made reproduction Eurpoean majolica designs for the giftware market.

Given that history, it's rather surprising that they didn't begin their Victorian majolica reproductions until the late 1980's.

Their work is really very good, probably the finest reproduction majolica now available. The company produces a design for a limited period then retires it, making for a brisk market in the collectibles sector. In 100 years they may well command the same prices that Victorian majolica commands today.

Naturally, the pieces aren't as heavy as Victorian majolica and many of them do have a slightly modernized look about them but they're high quality pieces well worth their expensive price tags if that is the sort of thing you are looking to purchase.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Majolica Spotlight: Wardle Bamboo and Fern

One of the many majolica patterns that came out of the Aesthetic Movement, James Wardle and Company's Bamboo and Fern is also one of the simplest in design--a simple ground of bamboo with two bamboo ferns laying across it. When I first started collecting majolica it was one of the first English designs that caught my eye for its simplicity and boldness. A picker I knew had a huge set of it in his home. What an imposing display it made! The umbrella stand alone is just stunning!

Designed around 1880 at the height of the influence of Japanese art and design on Western decorative arts, it was available in four background colors: brown, dark gray-green, yellow and very rarely turquoise.

It's quite an extensively realized pattern with pieces in all sizes and shapes. Like most Wardle patterns, the pieces are rarely marked but many of them do exhibit an English registry mark on the base.

Of the three available color grounds, the yellow is generally the most popular with collectors bringing prices about 50% higher than those of the brown or gray pieces.

The only available reproductions that I have seen are of the brown teapot directly below. While they may fool from a distance, on closer look they are crudely glazed with unglazed interiors. I would find it difficult to believe that they could fool any knowledgeable dealer or collector.

Wardle majolica was made to last, the pieces are heavy cast but the quality of the glazing is variable. There's nothing delicate about this stuff! Condition and craftsmanship are everything in deciding price with rarer pieces like the jardinières and umbrella stand bringing the highest prices.

Still, it is a nice pattern with roots dating back to an important period in the development of Western decorative arts. At a price point that everyone can afford, and enough availability and variety for any collector they make a good choice for the buyer looking for a pattern they can build on as the years pass.