The owners were clients of the Toronto auction house who had been selling their Moorcroft pottery for some time but Kime, who knew them and their collections well, had always hoped that one day he might get to sell their Martin Brothers pottery which had been assembled over decades.
Visiting the vendors to discuss the prospective sale, he suggested an unusual solution to the task of transporting the collection to Waddington’s. He would fly out to Vancouver, hire a van and then drive the whole packed collection right across Canada to Toronto himself. “It was a treat for me – I got to see Canada coast to coast,” he said of his 10-day cross-country trek.
It was worth the effort. When the 92 lots went under the hammer on December 6 last year the auction was a complete sell-out.
Brothers back in public eye
The vendors started their collection when the Martin Brothers first began attracting the attention of modern collectors in the 1970s. Events such as The Martin Brothers Potters exhibition mounted by British decorative pottery guru Richard Dennis in 1978 were starting to raise the profile of this quirky Victorian studio pottery.
The vendors’ interest was initially sparked by another early major exhibition mounted in 1980 by the MacMillan & Perrin Gallery in Vancouver. They already knew Neil MacMillan and Dan Perrin through their interest in Moorcroft, and the dealers were early advisers, selling them their first Martinware bird. Dennis was also instrumental in helping them to form the collection.
It took in most types of Martinware production spanning some of the brothers’ earliest creations from the 1870s and ’80s through to the pieces made when they were at the height of their success in the early years of the 20th century.
Vases, jugs and other vessels, watch cases, wall pockets, free-standing figures and miniature pieces all featured, as well as a selection of the signature Wally Bird lidded tobacco jars without which no collection would be complete.
A number of the lots had featured in that 1978 exhibition held by Dennis. Others had come from the Harriman Judd collection, a large ensemble of Martinware and other British art pottery that was the subject of two landmark sales held by Sotheby’s in New York in 2001.
Aided by attractively pitched estimates for a collection that was unreserved and there to be sold and the exposure via online platforms (which Kime reckoned contributed enormously to the event’s success), the sale drew plenty of attention.
Much of it came from absentee bidders. “Of the action, 75-80% came from people who had never handled the goods in person,” reckoned Kime,who added that these prospective buyers were working “entirely on condition reports, photographs sent to them and questions answered”.
Buyers emerged from England, the US and from Canadians too, with at least three of the top lots staying in the country.
As to be expected, the Wally Bird tobacco jars were the most expensive items. And, while there was nothing to challenge the current Martin Brothers record of US$190,000 (then £126,670) set at Phillips New York in 2015 for a Benjamin Disraeli character bird, some of the other pieces carrying more modest estimates went to levels that were considerably higher than predicted.
Tobacco bird jar soars
Topping Waddington’s list at a double-estimate Can$40,000 (£23,530) was an 8½in (22cm) high tobacco bird jar bearing incised marks to the base and head reading RW Martin & Bros London and Southall and dated 6-3-1907.
“It was a beauty. It was a very well dressed bird and looked like it was in evening dress, like he is going out dancing,” said Kime, remarking on its distinctive spotted plumage in shades of purple, black, green and brown.
Other birds in the collection ranged in price from Can$26,000 (£15,295) for the 10in (25cm) high stoneware bird incised MartinBros/London & Southall and dated 11-1904 that was the couple’s first avian acquisition from MacMillan and Perrin, down to Can$9000 (£5295) for an 8in (20cm) high bird with a body dated 5/12/-1903 and an associated head dated 5-1901.
Pieces that had featured in the Dennis exhibition included a 6¼in (16cm) high two-handled loving cup from 1888 decorated with fish and other aquatic fauna among scrolling seaweed which ended up selling for Can$4200 (£2470). An earlier creation, a 10½in (25cm) high clock case of architectural form inscribed RW Martin, London and dated 6-1875, realised Can$2800 (£1650).
The collection also featured nine of the brothers’ models of stoneware musician imps created in the early 20th century. Each was estimated at Can$1500-2000 and all bar two ended up outstripping those guides, led at Can$4000 (£2350) apiece by a buff-glazed harpist and a grey-glazed flute player that was dated 1-1910.
For whom the bell tolls
The sale included a 6in (16cm) high cream-glazed portrait figure of Will Childerhouse.
Inscribed The Norwich Bellman 1891 to the circular base, the figure sports a top hat and has one arm raised and carries a large bell in the other. It is inscribed RW Martin & Bros London & Southall and dated 7-1900.
WIt sold for Can$8500 (£5000), which was comfortably over the estimate, but less than the £10,000 paid for the only other version of this rare figure known to have come to auction, the example with a repaired arm sold in the UK at Woolley & Wallis in 2006.
Several of the brothers’ double-sided face jugs from the 1890s and early 20th century were on offer, but more unusual was a 7in (19cm) face tobacco jar by Robert Wallace Martin moulded to each side with a man’s face and the cover formed as a nightcap.
Incised RWM and dated 3-2-1911, it had a number of repairs so was modestly guided at Can$1000-1500, but easily outpaced that level to take Can$8000 (£4705).
£1 = Can$1.70