Did you believe that you would live to see a Charger by Bernard Leach sell for UK/US £97,200/$130,000? Well, you just have.
The Phillip’s and MAAK sale in London last week The Art of Fire: Selections From The Dr John P. Driscoll Collection blew the lid off the Studio Pottery market. The collection was the property of American collector John Driscoll who passed away April 10, 2020 from the coronavirus. Watching this live online, one could feel the electricity as the auction house staff manning the telephones struggled to keep up with often frantic bidding from across the globe. And to its credit Phillips, did a stellar job of promoting the event.
The sale grossed £6.5/$8.8 million, exceeded high estimates of £2/$2.6 million by 228% and set 28 world auction records. Marijke Varrall-Jones, director of Maak, is whetting appetites by noting that this is only the first selection from Driscoll’s collection and that he will continue to “act as a catalyst for a much-needed re-evaluation of the cultural significance of studio ceramics. John’s eye for quality and nose for a story has brought us a collection that has made history and will resonate for years to come. It is a legacy to be proud of.”
(You can learn more about Driscoll in this profile on the collector by Glenn Adamson.)
For decades, 20thCentury British Studio Pottery auctions ended up being simply the Hans and Lucie Show with bit players. Coper and Rie provided ninety per cent of the excitement, new records and income. Luckily, both had been highly productive. This time, while they were still the cash cows (Coper brought in £3.3/US$4.4 million, about half the total sale), surprisingly, others are coming into six-figure play.
The big shock was less a Coper pot selling for near to $1 million (that was inevitable) but Bernard Leach’s 1924 earthenware Charger that sold for £97,020/$130,000. He had previously been a dependable but lackluster performer with a mixed reputation (historically significant but …) and has suddenly leapt into a new league. Time will tell whether this is an anomaly or not.
The charger was arguably his most famous work in private hands, with a stunning slip trailed and carved ‘Tree of Life’ design. Records on the auction reflected a critical judgment by collectors; Leach was a better draftsman than a potter. The new records were for his “flatware”; plates, trays and tiles that best showcase his drawing. A large Tile with an Etruscan style octopus drawing fetched an unusually high £35,200/$47,287, a Charger of a bird feeding its young reached £37,800/$50,780. His vases received better prices than usual but not remarkably so.
Within the Leach camp £9,450/$12,693 for Michael Cardew’s stunning Bird Plate, an iconic work, was disappointing but his pots have not been stirring much market excitement recently. What was impressive was a well-deserved £20,160/$27,079 for a pair of monumental muscled lidded jars by gifted Leach apprentice Richard Batterham.
Japanese potter Shoji Hamada performed poorly, selling mostly under £10,000, with a box or without. Indeed, Japanese work overall did not excite buyers though an exceptional sculpture by Yo Akiyama did reach £13,860/$18,805.
There were several exciting record-breaking moments. A handsome water pot by Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali, received £132,300/$177,805. A dynamic work by James Tower sold for £94,500/$132,300. The rare appearance of Guyanese-born multi-media artist Donald Locke was rewarded with solid prices, £22,680 for a wall hanging and £13,860 for a pair of pot forms.
Lucie Rie did well but did not break records. Her top price was £207,900/$279,157 for a bowl. Most significant, lot 3 netted £63,000/$84,597, a small work (1 3/4 inches high) that was brought to London in Rie’s luggage when she fled Austria in 1938.
Six of Coper’s pots, mainly oversize, sold over a quarter to a half million dollars confirming his place as the reigning international superstar of the 20thcentury studio pottery movement. The highest price £651,700/$875,167 for lot 82.
The first test of this auction’s future impact comes when MAAK, the small London auctioneer that partnered Phillips in the Driscoll event, presents a large sale of 330 ceramic works, Modern + Contemporary Ceramicsfrom November 29 to December 2. Will the excitement of the Driscoll sale be the tide that floats more smaller of the boats?
What is fascinating is that the United States has not been able to hold specialist 20th century modern auctions of ceramics with the same level of success. Even when international auctions are held in the US, mostly under the modern design banner, it is often still Rie and Coper that provide the bulk of profit. We do not have their equivalent though a few are beginning to emerge, Toshiko Takaezu being one.
In part this is because few American ceramists have a strong international following so the collecting base is not deep. A perfect case in point is Gertrud and Otto Natzler, gifted émigré potters from Austria whose market at one stage had the energy and prices of Lucie Rie. Three of their main collectors decided to drop out of the market and their prices sank dramatically and have not recovered.
Peter Voulkos in theory could have been our star moneymaker. But his work has largely been bypassed by the fine arts, lowering his prestige. There are two difficulties, the one is that Voulkos was, contrary to reputation, not that prolific, so great works by him do not appear often enough on the market. Most of the best is already in, or promised to, public collections.
There have recently been three curious sales of his work at high prices, large sculptures that sold up to $912,000, but this had no effect on the rest of his market which has, if anything, shrunk with lower prices than a decade ago. Unquestionably, given careful choices because he was uneven, he is undervalued and his plates are still hovering around $10-15,000 each and are masterful bargains of our day. One wonders if they will ever bypass Leach’s $130,000 sales tag. They should.