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Friday, March 9, 2012

Arts and Crafts Sales: David Rago

Predictors of market trends have been alternatively lamenting and predicting (for quite some time now) the demise of the Arts and Crafts market.  Recent results from David Rago's sale suggest a market that is shifting, but far from on its last legs.  

The sale was helped by a number of strong and rare pieces, some of which reached new highs for the marketplace, and subject to similar shifts and trends evident in other markets as well.  In general, as this market has taken off from the late 1970s through the early 2000s, it had already showed signs of pricing out younger, newer collectors and entrenching itself amongst and wealthier group of buyers.  For a while, this worked fine, since three larger foundations (Crab Tree Farms, ADA1900, and Two Red Roses), and a number of important private collectors kept the market on a general upward trend.  That, combined with a steady supply of high end examples pushed the market ever higher.  Yet, even by late 1990s, things had begun to shift.  While sales of Stickley remained strong, the prices for Rookwood pottery began leveling off, and in the case of some glaze lines even declining.  

The market seems to be undergoing similar shifts now, which combined with a general uneasiness about the direction of the economy, seems to have undermined the lower and middle ends of this field.  In general, the high end seems a bit more insulated from these fluctuations, although recent sales suggest that aggressive reserves and pricing work to discourage bidding and frequently end up with lots that have not sold.   

First the high points of the sale:

Undoubtedly the star of the show was lot 97  WILLIAM PRICE / ROSE VALLEY COMMUNITY, described as an "Important large trestle table, Rose Valley, PA, ca. 1901" and estimated at $30-40,000.  When the bidding stopped, the hammer fell and the fees were paid, the table brought in $237,000, almost six times its high estimate.  

Rose Valley's relatively small output and the provenance and condition of the piece appear to have contributed substantially to the bidding war.  In some ways the piece is as important as it is enigmatic, resembling the English Gothic inspired designs of the 1880s and 90s more than contemporary furniture of 1901.  As such, it does crystalize the philosophy of Rose Valley who were looking backward and emulating the past for their inspiration, rather than translating it into a more modern idiom.

The George Ohr offerings proved a bit mixed at this sale, suggesting that collectors are willing to pay for exceptional pieces, such as the large and impressive pitcher that sold for $50,000, but less interested in his more traditionally designed wares and smaller pieces.  The same seemed true for the metal work of Samuel Yellin, and other makers as well.  Oddities and rarities on the whole did well, and no lot better illustrated this tendency than an lot 134, an exquisite chest by F.A. Rawlence estimated at 6-9K, that eventually sold for $50K. 

Pieces more commonly available were less likely to break estimates, and a look at Teco vase no. 85 is instructive in this regard.  In December 2005, Sotheby's sold an example for over $22,000, but prices have declined steadily since then.  In 2007, two sold at Rago's for $8K and $10K respectively.  Don Treadway carried one that went for 8.5K in 2011, and the example sold this weekend hammered at 5500.  In fairness, the latest piece had a 2 inch restoration to the rim and other issues, but the price paid was less than a similar example sold in 2004.

Lot 80, Teco vase model 85.

These same patterns generally held throughout the sale and a general trend of arts and crafts pottery suggests softness in the once staple items that appear for sale.  What is does it mean to buyers?  The answer is pretty simple: if you like Grueby, Teco, Van Briggle, and Rookwood and you felt as though the market for these items was beyond your means, there has been enough of a correction that these pieces are becoming much more affordable.  For instance, a tiger Eye Rookwood Vase once owned by the Cincinnati Museum sold for under 3000 (including premium).  Van Briggle vases with some age and history have come back to saner prices. 

It seems to me that the correction of prices might be a good thing in the end for the market, as it has the potential to stimulate interest in collectors who had been previously priced out of it.  Will a younger generation of collectors step up, stop buying their furnishings at Pier 1, and find the clean lines and hand-crafted qualities of the Arts and Crafts somewhat appealing?  One might hope so.  There was a time when people purchased things for their use and beauty, not just their investment value.    

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