Budget-conscious collectors, whose enthusiasm for studio pottery maintained the market for decades before it became fashionable, are now often outpriced when major pieces appear for sale.
However, the spring sales held by London specialist Maak (20% buyer’s premium) are aimed at the wider market that operates well below the stratospheric prices which have made the headlines in the past couple of decades.
These are not just long-time UK-based loyalists. A younger generation and successful bids from 13 different countries (with particularly strong US and Japanese involvement) were a factor at the May 2 sale at the Royal Opera Arcade in Pall Mall in which 80% of the 326 lots got away to a hammer total of £332,980.
Pieces ranged from the 1920s, when Bernard Leach (1887-1979) and his Japanese colleague Hamada Shoji (1894-1978) set up the St Ives Pottery, to the ‘third-generation’ contemporary studio potters whose work is now gaining traction in the secondary market.
Varied price points
A c.1922, 6¾in (17.5cm) tall pottery jar and cover, impressed with Hamada Shoji’s maker’s mark and the Leach Pottery seal, had some small chips and glaze losses commensurate with age but sold above estimate at £6000.
The long career of Michael Cardew (1901-83), Leach’s first apprentice and one of many to go on to distinguished careers, was represented by five works made across his long life. All sold in three figures. The earliest, dated c.1932, was a 10in (24cm) amber glazed dish with a finger wiped ‘river’ pattern to the well. With impressed MC and Winchcome Pottery seals, it took a top-estimate £500.
The latest, made after Cardew’s return from 20 years in West Africa, was a c.1980 stoneware bowl of the same size impressed with MC and the seals of the Wenford Bridge Pottery. With a transparent green-brown glaze over piped and incised designs in thick white slip, it went a shade below estimate at £500.
In current price terms, potters in the purist tradition of Leach and his followers can fall behind the more sculptural post-war pieces produced by designers such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and their successors. The best-seller here was a c.1980, 10½in (26.5cm) tall stoneware flared-top bottle vase by Rie (1902-95) which took a top-estimate £20,000.
Keen uptake for cheaper Rie items included a 6½in (15.5cm) wide c.1958 ‘squeezed’ bowl at a lower-estimate £1500, while for the growing number of micro-specialists there were three lots of the buttons she produced for Bimini, the factory run by Fritz Lampl, her fellow refugee from Nazi Germany. Best-seller was a lot of six made c.1946 which tripled hopes at £2000. An indication that this market is less fevered than a couple of years back was the failure of a c.1975 porcelain bowl pitched at £10,000- 15,000.
Coper contribution and Nagi record
Six of the seven pieces by Rie’s fellow refugee and assistant-cum-protegé Coper (1920-81) were sold. The failure of his c.1955 large bowl against a £12,000-18,000 estimate was a disappointment. However, his 6½in (16cm) tall stoneware Composite Form c.1952 sold at £12,000.
The latest in a line of records set since former Bonhams expert Marijke Varrall-Jones founded these sales was posted by a c.1990, 12in (30cm) wide zoomorphic pitcher by Abdo Nagi (1941-2001).
Nagi was part of the long tradition of immigrants to impact the British studio ceramics scene. He had been a goat herder in Yemen before arriving in the UK in 1967 as a domestic servant. He then took a BA Hons degree at the Middlesex Polytechnic and settled in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, producing his characteristically richly glazed ceramics.
“The last couple of years have seen a rise in his market,” said Varrall-Jones. “Works that would previously fetched £300-400 are now going for £700-900 and we had a small bowl in last May’s sale that did very well at £1800.”
The pitcher, in perfect condition and bearing the maker’s mark, was one of three Nagi items in the sale. His 14¼in (36cm) diameter green bowl with flared rim and his 9¼in (23.5cm) tall stoneware globular vessel each sold within estimate at £800 and £700.
“The pitcher is a really unusual piece,” said Varrall-Jones. “We have sold one or two before but there were not very many made. We estimated this one at £700-900 but after a protracted bidding battle it eventually sold to a private collector in the UK at a hammer £6500.”
More affordable was a work by Mary Rogers (b.1929), whose 1985 small Folded Bowl made a record £4800 at Maak last May. This time around, her c.1970 Small Bowl, a 3½in (9cm) wide porcelain work of finely pinched irregular form, sold on its £500 higher estimate.
Jennifer Lee (b.1956) is already an established star, with her record set at Sotheby’s last September at £26,000 (plus 25% premium) for a stoneware vase, Spangled, Amber, Coral and Speckled Band. The sole Lee piece was her c.1984 Small Angled Pot with Dark Spots, a 6¼in (16cm) asymmetric stoneware pot of mixed stained clays which went above estimate at £10,000.
Also from the current generation, Edward de Waal’s (b.1964) 6in (15.5cm) wide porcelain teapot, c.1995, estimated at £1500-2000 took £5000, while John Ward’s (b.1951) 8in (20cm) Oval Vessel with Dipped Rim made double the top estimate at £8500.