The last time a sale of a body of ceramics evinced his kind of excitement and success was when David Whitney (the partner of architect Philip Johnson) sold his Ken Price and George Ohr collection at Sotheby’s in 2006. The Betty Lee and Aaron Stern collection did better, grossing over $4,187,063 and selling 84% of what was on offer. Yes, there were some works in other media, but not many. The sale was a triumph for the ceramic duo, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, who are now firmly anchored as the most successful ceramists, marketwise, of the 20th century.
Every Coper sold; with five reaching six figures ($100,000 to $197,000) and many pieces sold at two to four times the top estimate. The top price of $197,000, which went to Coper, was unforeseen. It was lot 39, Early and large globular pot with abstract design from 1955, that was estimated in the price range that this type of piece usually sells for– $30,000-$40,000. It sold for nearly five times the top estimate. It will take a few more auctions to decide whether this was simply an anomaly or whether this marks a change in the Coper market.
Rie’s pots did very well also, with two fetching a record price of $81,250.
Gertrud and Otto Natzler’s finely glazed bowls, bottles, and vases followed a softening trend and sold between $5,000 and $13,500, with the exception of one piece that we sold to the Sterns in our gallery days that fetched a handsome $16,250.
There was a curious result for the Ken Price work that was on offer. Lot 60, Unit 6 from Happy’s Curios, was estimated at $300,000-$400,000 but sold for only $293,000—perhaps reflecting the fine art market’s caution in regards to his pottery forms (his non-vessel sculptures fetch higher prices). If this was the reason, it indicates that the audience for his work is rather naive and driven by Matthew Marks era taste. This was a stunning masterpiece and I had expected it to easily cross the half million point.
Not one of Price’s pornographic pots sold, nor did any of the attendant drawings, possibly because of the subject but more likely due to overly aggressive estimates. Lot 70, a group of seventeen exceptional Town Wares, was estimated at $30,000-$40,000 and was the real bargain of the show, but it did not sell. A less impressive group of twelve, Lot 116, fetched $43,750. There is no accounting for taste. Two drawings fetched handsome prices; Lot 147 got $35,000 and Lot 148 reached $42,750.
The ceramics in the next two auctions of design, which followed right on the heels of the Stern collection, did not fare as well. Surprisingly, neither vessel by Magdalene Odundo sold (both were excellent). Japanese studio pottery did poorly and continues to be a problematic sell overall. Thirteen ceramics were offered and five sold, with the top price of $25,000 going to Lot 204, a group of eight Bernt Friberg vases (a great buy estimated at $8,000-$12,000), and Lot 328, a ceramic totem sculpture titled Menta, by Ettore Sottsass.
A final note and a sign of the times, the number of people attending the Phillips auction was obviously smaller than the number of callers who were keeping the two telephone operators in the room furiously busy. Aside from gala events like the big contemporary art sales, buying at auction is no longer a spectator sport. Paddle making is a dying craft.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Hans Coper, Early and large globular pot with abstract design, 1953. Estimate $30,000 – 40,000 and sold for $197,000.