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Curating a Lifestyle: American Art Pottery

Tackling the field of pottery collecting in a two-page article is akin to filling a pool with a teacup. As broad a category as any, pottery generally refers to any object shaped from clay and dried (or fired) to fix the form. Humans have been creating functional (and functionally beautiful) pottery objects for over 13,000 years, and while methods and materials have largely remained the same, design, style and form has changed dramatically across cultures and generations. A relatively undervalued segment of the collecting world today happens to be one that particularly appeals to us: American art pottery. Rising from the practical use of rich and abundant clay deposits across the eastern and central states, art pottery was elevated in the late 19th Century when an unlikely innovator (who happened to also be a wealthy Cincinnati socialite) decided it was time for America to step up and overtake Europe as the leader in the ceramic arts. Thanks to an expansive online market, collectors are able to enter this field at nearly every price point. Below are a few examples of some of the more sought-after American art pottery companies.

Rookwood Founded by Cincinnati socialite Maria Longworth, the Rookwood Pottery Company was a success by any measure when its team of artisans won the First Prize Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 - just 9 years after the firm had started production. Shocking the international artistic community - who had never really paid much attention to American ceramics, Rookwood went on to dominate the art pottery scene for several decades, pouring money into high quality materials and hiring the best of the best artists of the period. A signature Rookwood matte-glazed vase with minimal decoration can be easily found for just $100-300, but buyers looking for more elaborate pieces by renowned artists such as Sara Sax, Albert Valentine, Jens Jensen or Carl Schmidt should be prepared to reach deep into their wallets, with works reaching well into the thousands.

Newcomb Born from the desire to supply women with the means of supporting themselves and their families, Newcomb Pottery grew from the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, the women's college now associated with Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. During it’s years of operation (1895-1940), the company produced more than 70,000 pieces, many of which were decorated by home-grown talent whose names make collectors’ hearts race all over the country: Sadie Irvine, Harriet Joor , Frances Lawrence Howe Cocke and Sara Levy. Apropos to the Arts and Crafts period during which it flourished, Newcomb pottery drew inspiration from the local flora and fauna. Its high point is generally considered to be from 1897-1917, when the artists from Newcomb won numerous awards at various exhibitions. The record-price at auction for Newcomb pottery was $169,200, for a high-glazed vase with incised clematis designs decorated in 1904 by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc. Generally, though, options abound in the mid hundreds to low thousands.

Grueby Inspired by the matte glazes popular on French pottery at the time, the classically refined simplicity of Japanese ceramics and the work of architect-designer William Graves, William Henry Grueby founded his eponymous company in Revere, Massachusetts in 1894. A pioneer in the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, the Grueby company produced homegoods, as well as architectural terra cotta and tin-glazed faience tiles. A series of impressive results at international exhibitions from 1901-1904 shot Grueby’s wares to meteoric commercial success - and partnerships with some of the biggest brands of the era. Style-maker Siegfred Bing featured Grueby in his tony Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris; Tiffany Studios purchased Grueby bases for their stunning leaded glass lamp shades; and acclaimed furniture maker Gustav Stickley incorporated Grueby tiles into stands and tables. Grueby is probably best recognized today for tiles and lamp bases, with prices covering a wide range - from $100 to many thousands of dollars.

Weller Samuel Weller started his modest pottery company in 1872 with one beehive kiln and a small cabin, but by 1905 the company was one of the largest manufacturers of ceramics in the country. Weller Pottery mass-produced art pottery through 1920, and its commercial lines continued until the company closed in 1948. Although the majority of Weller Pottery is fairly inexpensive and easy to find, a few designs can be more obscure and cost substantially more. The Sicardo line of pottery was developed by French ceramist Jacques Sicard and feature an iridescent glaze that was notoriously difficult to produce. Historians believe that only about 30% of the Sicard pieces ever made survived to market during the short five year production period. Many believe that Sicard never revealed the secret of his glaze; and when he returned to France, his formula went with him. Collectors expect to pay several hundred dollars each for basic Sicard pieces.

Homer Laughlin Best known for their colorful dinnerware known as Fiesta, Homer Laughlin is hardly associated with the best art pottery. But, for a brief period, along with his brother, Laughlin threw his hat into the art pottery ring - producing a very small handful of covetable items, including a pâte-sur-pâte porcelain, a laborious process that allows the decoration to retain a translucence so sought after in porcelain. High-style porcelains from Laughlin’s ambitious efforts command high prices as both aesthetically appealing and historically important works.

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Sophisticated Living

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