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

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Animals have long been among the most popular subjects in majolica. When you get to wild animals the popularity --and price-- increase several fold. With the "Wizard of Oz" a staple of our culture, I thought it might be fun to illustrate the majolica denizens from this popular refrain.

So let's get started with lions.

Next is tigers!

Finally, let's look at bears.

Lions and tigers, as you can see, are rather rare in majolica, so prices for any of these pieces will be very high. Bears are somewhat more common but with so many collectors interested in bears as a cross collectable, the prices for them can be high as well.

So follow the yellow brick road down to you local antique shop and see what wild beasts you can hunt down!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Negotiating Your Majolica Purchase

Anyone who deals in antiques knows that just about any marked price is negotiable. If you keep in mind the following six rules, you'll have the upper hand in any price negotiation.

Most dealers know that people like to negotiate for a better price. For this reason they intentionally mark up their prices so that the negotiated price will approximate the price that the dealer actually needs to get. When you ask for their "best price" or their "dealer's price" you're going to get the price that they really need. Pursuing a further discount will generally cut into a dealer's profit margin, and since the profit margin for most antique dealers is in the 10-20% range, there isn't a whole lot of room there. Remember, dealers are trying to make a living. They don't go through the trouble of finding the piece, sitting through a five hour auction to buy the piece, cataloging the piece, marking the piece, packing the piece and hauling it from one place to another for the love of the antique. They need to feed their families just like you do. If the dealer's best price isn't near where you want the price to be, move on. Another one will come along. Nagging them for a bigger discount may work in the short term, but many dealers will just resent it. They will consider it boorish, and be less likely to offer you a good price the next time you want to buy from them.

Whatever you do don't try to negotiate a better price by pointing out the piece's flaws or trying the "you must be crazy to ask that" line. Dealers know what they have, what they have invested in it and its value. They're not interested in hearing you degrade their merchandise or the price they are asking for it just to get a better deal.
So the first rule of negotiating a price is to respect the dealer.

When buying directly from a dealer, you're in a better position to negotiate than if you're buying retail through a shop, but how you pay for your antique will also make a difference in the final price.

Most antique dealers and malls offer a standard 10-15% discount to anyone paying with cash or a check. This is because dealers have to pay a percentage of their sale to the credit card company for anyone who pays by a credit card. While many dealers today will take credit cards, there are many who still do not. This is particularly true in the case of outdoor venues where dealers are operating as their own agents. In large antique shows the show management will frequently offer dealers the convenience of credit sales for their customers, but at a price. This brings us to the second rule of negotiating for antiques: carry cash or checks. It puts you in a stronger bargaining position than if you need to use plastic.

The third rule of negotiating a fair price is to consider the venue itself. Dealers at a three day antiques show are generally more willing to negotiate a better price than someone who runs a shop. When you do your negotiation makes a difference too. It's a pretty well known fact that you're likely to get a better deal at the end of a show than at the beginning. Setting up for an antique show is difficult, backbreaking work and the less the dealer has to pack up, the happier they will be, so they are generally more flexible with their prices at the conclusion of the show. Of course the disadvantage here is that the most desirable pieces are often the first out the door and you're likely to lose out if you wait. This leads us to the fourth rule of negotiating.

Evaluate desirability. What are you interested in purchasing? An extremely rare piece of majolica is going to be more difficult to negotiate down in price than a more common piece. You certainly can try to negotiate down the price of that rare George Jones strawberry server but don't be surprised if the dealer is less likely to offer a big discount on it than if he would a more common server, so consider the item. If the dealer has more than one of the same item they will also be more flexible in negotiating down a price than if it was a one of a kind item.

The fifth rule of negotiating is bundling. The more you buy from a dealer the more likely you'll be able to get a better deal. It's not at all uncommon for a dealer to offer an additional 10% discount if you purchase more than one item from them. The more you buy, the bigger the discount. This leads right into the final rule.

The sixth rule of negotiating is familiarity. Being a repeat customer with a particular dealer will certainly give you an advantage when trying to buy from them. Dealers love steady customers. Often a strong customer/dealer relationship will incourage a dealer to buy especially with your interests, and your pocketbook, in mind. In such cases, the price offered in a private transaction is often much cheaper than if that item were put out on the shelf.

Negotiating a fair price for your majolica can often be very satisfying. Knowing that you paid a decent price and not an exorbitant one will make for a much more pleasant antique experience. Everyone likes to get a bargain. If you keep these simple rules in mind you're bound to get a good price and a lovely piece for your collection as well.

Happy Valentine's Day!

 To all my readers.

Have a lovely day!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: "Majolica" by Mike Schneider

Over the years many books on majolica have crossed my path. Of all of them, the paperback Majolica, by Mike Schneider and Schiffer Publishing, has to be the worst I have seen. Filled with incredibly bad photos of incredibly dull pieces and awful misinformation, Majolica is a disaster.

Now Mr. Schneider seems like a nice enough fellow, and I'm sure he is, but according to what information is available, Mr. Schneider is a contract writer. Nowhere in his biography is there any mention of any background in antiques, yet he is the author of nine books on antiques, as diverse as salt and pepper shakers, Stangl birds and Grindley pottery. In colloquial terms, some might call this kind of work hack writing: a writer hired to produce routine commercial writing.
I don't mean to be harsh on the fellow, I don't know him. Certainly he is only trying to make an honest living as a freelance writer, but unfortunately his lack of background in antiques comes through crystal clear in the text of Majolica. He claims to have three pieces of majolica in his own collection, but he never claims to have any personal knowledge of the subject.
He is a good writer however, which goes a long way towards covering his inexperienced tracks but when you are writing a book about a specific subject, particularly one with a devoted following like majolica, one's passion needs to come through the page. Schneider's passion is as absent as cheese on the moon.

The book starts out promisingly enough. In the preface, Schneider waxes poetic about the young girls who may have painted the majolica you hold in your hand. It's a lovely little piece that instills a sense of marvel into the subject. Unfortunately, the elegant writing soon gives way to routine rehashes of the origin of majolica and the various forms that are available, all without any insight. This would have been forgivable were it not for the exceptionally bad choice of pieces for the book, flat photos, terrible captions and poor design that make up the bulk of the reference.

I have never seen such an undistiguished selection of majolica pieces in a majolica book. Most of the photos look like they were taken by a maiden aunt with her flash camera on the dining room table. I see far better images on eBay. It is absolutely appalling that photos this poor would find themselves in a reference publication.

As for the inaccuracies in the caption text, the book has no equal. A piece of creamware is identified as "the plainest piece of majolica you'll ever see." Staining is routinely identified as crazing while a 10" Continental corn pitcher is identified as "either unmarked Etruscan or an Etruscan copy." He claims that the Etruscan Shell pitcher came in three sizes. That should come as news to those who have Shell pitchers in ten more sizes. There seems to be more accuracy in crediting the owners of the pieces than in discussing the pieces themselves.

The paperback's design is another disaster. First of all the cover is what we used to call "pig ugly" when I was a child. Pictures inside are all different sizes, some with borders, some without, some bleeding off the page, some centered. The captions are carelessly centered below the images with no uniformity to the distance between the image and the caption or the amount of white space on the page. If a designer presented this to me as a portfolio piece I would take their business card and toss it right into the trash.

It's a shame that a reference this bad would be in its fourth edition with a four star overall rating on Amazon. I can only assume that some people have extremely low expectations about their majolica reference material. In my opinion it's an insult to readers, authors and the subject itself.

Majolica by Mike Schneider; Schiffer Publishing; 4th Revised edition; 144 Pages; $14.95  

Ceramic Restoration

We want to send out a hearty congratulations to friend of this blog, and fellow majolica collector Randi Tolsky-Schwartz who had a very nice article written about her talent for ceramic restoration by the Wilmette Beacon.
Randi has had an active restoration business in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette for many years. We had the good fortune to visit her workroom a few years back and must say that her work shelves are filled with some heart-breaking pieces of damaged ceramic. Her ability to restore their beauty, while still making a good living, must be a satisfying way to spend the day.

Randi also runs a retail shop, Raven and Dove in the front of her workroom where she sells a nice upscale selection of decorative accessories, including a beautiful selection of majolica.

Though the article was published a couple of months ago this was our first opportunity to read it and I recommend it heartily. To read it for yourself head on over to the Beacon's Web site.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Choisy-le-Roi Aesthetic Series Plates

Anyone who is interested in Etruscan Majolica is aware of the peculiar, rare Asian Peasant plate made by the company. That plate is actually a direct copy of a French plate made by Hippolyte Boulanger & Cie fa├»ence de Choisy-le-Roi also known as Choisy-le-Roi or Hautin Boulanger. But how did this odd design actually originate?

The Exposition Universalle in Paris in 1878 is one of those benchmarks in art historical terms that had far reaching influence long after the show had closed. All of the finest manufacturers across the globe wanted their work showcased at the show. Choisy-le-Roi (CLR) was an active participant creating a gate to the Palace of Fine Art for the show. What ultimately stole the show however, was the display of Japanese decorative art shown for the first time outside Japan in a Western exposition. With Paris the center of art and culture in the last half of the Nineteenth century, the Japanese art had an enormous influence on Western decorative arts of the entire period. Western audiences were enthralled by the exotic imagery and geometric forms. Every facet of decorative art from Van Gogh paintings to wallpaper felt this influence. As the movement swept through Great Britain and then the United States it developed into an art historical period known today as the Aesthetic Movement.

To feed this huge new market for Eastern art, the CLR factory complied in 1880 with their own line of majolica in the Japanese taste.

Where the British and Americans were using Japanese design motifs and combining them with a Western design aesthetic, the French at CLR were trying to more closely reproduce the type of ware coming from the East. Of course without a true understanding of Asian customs the result still turned out to be a mishmash of cultures, but it produced a unique line of majolica wares that are largely neither understood nor appreciated today.

The plate copied by the Etruscan Works is one from a series of majolica plates created in the Japanese style from this period. The series utilizes the intaglio Email Ombrant technique. Each of these plates feature a different geometric vignette. Each vignette encloses an active Asian figure balanced off center against some sort of free form Asian decorative motif which usually completes the scene. The figures are derived from various sources including Hokusai's Manga, a book of sketches made of life in Japan in the 17th Century.

The plates were glazed in either one solid color glaze--usually an olive green, turquoise, brown or ochre–--or two, like the Etruscan copy.

To the best of my knowledge there are twelve different designs in the series. I have never seen a matching platter but I have seen a dessert stand.

There is also a different series. This second series is considerably less common than the previous one. Unlike the other design, this one has no formal border around the central image but it also utilizes the Email Ombrant technique and the vignettes of the previous one. These all have one figure inside a vignette within a larger, more complex scene. Around the perimeter of the plate, there are various exotic looking figures meant to represent Japanese script. How authentic these are I can't say because I don't read Japanese, but they look more decorative than anything and certainly add an exotic Asian flavor to the overall design.
I have only seen these plates glazed in a monochromatic manner, in the same colors of the other series. I do not know how many different designs were created for this series as they rarely show up, but I would guess that there are probably twelve different designs for this group as well.

Both of these series' have a restrained sophistication so common of French majolica done in the intaglio manner and would make a striking, and unusual conversation starter at any meal.
Like most plates of this type, they remain quite reasonably priced with monochromatic examples beginning at about $30 a piece and two color plates beginning around $75, so they are well within the reach of most collectors.

So the next time you see them pick them up, and impress your friends with your art history background and continental sophistication!