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

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Shaky World of Pottery Attribution

Every antique pottery buyer has had this experience. You go into an antique shop and see a well known design of pottery marked on the sales tag with the wrong manufacturer's attribution. What do you do? Well, your answer to this dilemma will often say more about your ethics than anything else. If it is an expensive piece of Minton marked as an unknown American pottery and priced accordingly you're likely to pay the price and walk out of the shop with your new bargain under your arm, congratulating yourself on your superior knowledge. However if it is the other way around and it is an unremarkable piece by an unknown pottery marked and priced as a piece of rare Minton you're more likely to either chuckle and walk on past or bring it to the attention of the owner in the expectation that they will lower the price. We have to admit that we've responded in both manners to a faulty attribution.

Any glance through upcoming auction listings will offer plenty of opportunity to also do both of these. All too frequently auction listings are wildly incorrect to the detriment of both the consigner and the auctioneer. but to the delight of bidders. We recall seeing an ad for an auction where a majolica teapot was being offered for sale in a box lot with a small group of majolica odds and ends. It looked suspiciously like a George Jones teapot design from the fuzzy picture that was posted of the box lot content. We took a chance and bought the lot by phone bid. When we picked up the box lot we were pleased to see that our assessment was correct and we had purchased the entire lot, including a George Jones teapot, for under $100. If the auction staff had recognized the piece as a GJ teapot it would have most likely sold for several times that price just by itself. On the same note one can look on eBay any day of the year and see a half dozen "George Jones" teapots for sale, only they aren't by George Jones, just unmarked majolica of indeterminate provenance.

This is one reason why education is very important when one buys antiques. You really need to recognize what is being offered. Lately on eBay there have been a large number of pond lily plates listed for sale as Holdcroft. Where this idea comes from we can't say but it has taken hold on eBay and has been self perpetuating for months. Holdcroft made a number of pond lily plates but this design has never been among them; it doesn't even have any of the characteristics of a Holdcroft piece. In reality no one really knows who originally designed this particular pattern. All we know is that it was a design copied by a number of different companies in a number of different countries, among them Forester in GB and Griffen Smith & Co. in the US.

Unmarked pond lily plate frequently misidentified as Holcroft 
Griffen Smith & Co. version of the same pond lily plate as above

Forester comport with pond lily plate
It's funny how misidentifications like this take hold. We have never seen this design attributed to Holdcroft in any book yet there it is all over eBay!

We first joined eBay in 1998 and when we saw a listing for something that had an incorrect attribution we would contact the member who listed the piece and offer them the correct attribution. Perhaps that can be seen as an act of arrogance on our part–to assume we know more than them–but in fact we were just trying to be helpful. More often than not however the response was less than pleasant, sometimes accusing us of trying to undermine the dealer's price. Because of this we stopped contacting people to correct them. People don't like being told they don't know what they're doing, even if it's to their benefit.

The truth is that attributions matter and giving something the wrong attribution can be a costly mistake. Once we saw an extremely valuable piece of Minton offered for sale on eBay with a very low starting price. It was clear from the description that the seller had no idea what they had. They thought they were selling Italian pottery from the 1950s-60s. We wrote them and told them not to accept any offers outside of eBay but to just allow the auction reach its conclusion because their attribution was wrong and it was a valuable piece. We had no interest in buying it but we felt the owner was more likely to get a fair price through auction rather than have someone steal it from him with a private bid. He was very unkind in his response, saying that he had accepted a private offer for $1,500 and that we should mind our own business. If the piece had indeed been Italian pottery from the mid 20th century $1,500 would have been a generous offer. However it was not. The dealer's nasty reaction made it easier to tell him after the fact that the piece had a value closer to $15,000.

The bottom line is that in this name brand world we live in certain names can make a big difference in the antique business. People want reassurance that they are buying the genuine article and are willing to pay a premium for it. This is why signatures, and attributions really do matter.

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