On this December 17 at 10 am, yet another resale ritual begins, part of one of the single finest ceramics collections of its kind ever offered (The Betty Lee and Aaron Stern Collection) goes to the hammer and the individual works will find new homes. CFile covered this auction briefly last week, noting it as a special event, not your everyday auction. This week we look at a selection of the Hans Coper and Lucie Rie pots and then, in another post, the XXX-Pots of Ken Price. Both are exceptional assemblies of work.
Lucie Rie lived in London diagonally across Hyde Park from the Royal College of Art where I was going to school in the early 1970s. From time to time, I would make the walk across the park to have tea with her or photograph her work for my studies in the modern history of ceramic art. She was an impressive woman, forthright and highly critical but fair. Because her family came almost entirely from the psychoanalysis profession (the Freuds were among her best friends) she had the disturbing ability to answer with the question one was attempting to ask rather than responding to the words coming out of one’s mouth.
I never met Hans Coper. He was alive at the time but seriously ill so I kept my distance (wish I hadn’t), but I learned much about him through Rie’s commentary, her deep admiration for his work, and love of the man. They were lovers briefly, but while he moved on (he was wickedly handsome) she remained in love for the rest of her life. One of her oft-repeated lines was “Remember, I am a potter; Hans is an artist.” She also scoffed at Coper being called a sculptor. “These aren’t sculptures” she would say, plucking one from a bookshelf, “look, the ring there is to hold the flower stems together, it’s a vase!”
She was liberated enough to know that a pot could be art. And it was Betty Lee Stern who made the US Customs Service agree with Rie. She appealed to the Customs and Excise Court and won a ruling in which the judge allowed that pots of certain accomplish could be considered works of art alongside that of painting and sculpture. It was given for the work of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper but with the understanding that the ruling was not limited to these two artists. The Betty Lee Ruling (as we termed it in our gallery days) meant that ceramic art could come into the US from abroad without being charged a duty of a mass-produced vase for Target.
Rie and Coper are, more often than not, spoken of today as a couple and they are in many ways, including in their art. Their work always related one to the other, a perfect polar expression of a yin-yang, masculine-feminine principle. They are ultimately quite different because Rie came out of the decorative arts in Austria and Coper from German sculpture. But placed together the two disciplines merge, laced with affection for one another’s art that is palpable, even from the art itself.
They are also the king and queen of 20th century studio pottery; by far the most famous, the most highly priced, and the most sought after. Coper has the record for highest price paid at auction and Rie’s auction sales are the highest for any artist of her era.
Enjoy the images of the works that follow whether you are a collector, an artist who has long been a fan of their art, or even better, no matter what brought to this page, you are looking at their art for the first time–you have the treat of discovery.
The portrait above of Lucie Rie is by Lord Snowdon (Dame Lucie Rie Seated Beside the Korean Pot, circa 1990, Estimate $2,000 – 3,000) is one of the lots offered in the sale.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image, Lord Snowdon (Antony Armstrong Jones) Dame Lucie Rie Seated Beside the Korean Pot, circa 1990