Two sales, MAAK’s Modern + Contemporary Ceramics (19 November, 2020) and Phillips Design Auction New York (9 December, 2020) have reset the record books for studio pottery. At MAAK Angled Mixed Coloured Piece by Magdalene Odundo reached £200,000 ($268,000), the highest price by a living ceramist. Peter Voulkos’ Black Bulerias (1957), acquired by a Wyoming buyer, set the record for a post-WW2 work.
Interestingly both artists broke their own records. Odundo’s previous record was £195,000 (Sotheby’s Paris, 2015) and Voulkos’s previous record was for Rondena (1958) which reached $915,000 on Phillips’ Design Evening Sale (12 December, 2017). Learn more in Cfile.
MAAK, this pocket-Adonis of an auction house, had a strong sale overall. With 83% of lots sold, the average lot price was close to £3,000 with further artist records achieved for Mary Rogers (Lot 107) at £16,800 and Gordon Baldwin (Lot 133) at sold for £14,400. It was a pleasure to see John Ward’s steady growth and appreciation. Monumental Vessel circa 2003 received £21,600 ($28,000) – equaling the world record for his price previously set by Maak. His Moon Bowl brought in the most money (£10,000) $13,500 at the FiredUp4 Charity Auction that MAAK hosted. (November 19, 2020). Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, the anchor of the studio pottery auctions, did well but not exceptionally so.
Watching the Phillips’ auction play out live for Voulkos was nail biting. Cfile was rooting for the price to cross the $1 million line. Towards the end bids were raised at increments of only $10K and $20K, inching up until the hammer slammed down at $1,020,000 ($1,264,200 with commissions).
This price might awaken the market to Voulkos’ potential and that of ceramics of 1950’s and 1960’s. But there is a strange anomaly. There are only about 25 of these monumental works. This represents about 0.83333333333% of his total oeuvre, said to be 3,000 works (pots & sculptures). Most are either in museums or promised museum gifts. It’s estimated that that only three remain in private hands, so collecting these is a short if costly ride.
These high prices have not floated his vessels (aka pots). Pun intended. A second Voulkos was auctioned, Untitled Vessel (1963). It sold with little fervor for $12,600. Not only was this surprisingly low but much less than works of this quality sold for a more 10-6 years ago. Overall, Voulkos’s pots have been losing value. His Stack pots that once sold for a high of $104K now fetch $45K to $35K.
Untitled Vessel was not inferior. It comes from his most valued period by scholars, the so-called Abstract Expressionist era (1955 to 1964). The form is about as radical as they come; thrown, paddled, punctured, gouged, cracked (good in Pete’s case) with an oversized foot, and creepy witch fingers. It was painted with dark blue, turquoise and black setting a dynamic conflict between surface and form.
The issue may be rarity. But it also may be a tired old trope that pots are less important in art terms than non-vessel sculpture. The fine art world does not support this. If one takes the top 20 fine artists making ceramics today, about 70% are vessel makers in one form or another.
To give a little context; two miniature Lucie Rie’s (1 ½ and 2 ¼ inches high) sold for $17,400 each. George Ohr’s Pot with Snakes, 5 ¼ inches sold at $32,760. Blistered Vase, 8 ¼ inches high, a much better work, practically a catalog of The Mad Potter’s most theatrical glazes found a home for only $37,800. Could it be that Japanese buyers are now collecting small works by Ohr? Either way height had the historical gravitas of Untitled Vessel.
A wonderfully decadent highlight was Arts du Feu: Work from the Collection of Jason Jaques, supported in the catalogue by an excellent essay, “Romancing the Pot”, by Glenn Adamson. It is an exceptional group of the finest French studio pottery from 1880-1914.
I have made no secret that I find the British and American studio pottery to be second rate by comparison. That begins with the fact that both avoided any eroticism in their work (partly because some of the potteries were small factories, and partly because it was English and American). These French pots are powerfully sexual and fecund. We have published them in a separate post that you can reach by clicking here.
Lucie’s Rie’s prices were solid but not fevered. For me the charm lay in two functional works; Series of Eight Cups and Saucers, c.1952, made with Hans Coper and a quirky Set of Oil and Vinegar Bottles, c. 1952. Rie’s kitchen wares used to be the affordable works but not anymore, the cups sold of $21,420 and bottle $6,930.
Two works from Phillips’ Design London (12 November, 2020) deserve special mention. They were by Ettore Sottsass and Axel Salto. Sottsass’s totem, Claire de Lune (1988) is, if not the most beautiful work of this series, at least in the top ten, with rectangular platforms extending from the circular column and the lush seafoam glaze, from solid color to a hazy mist. It sold for $42,840.
Salto has been the most sought-after Scandinavian mid-century artist for a decade. His selling price, $138,600, did not come as a surprise.
Until the next auction…