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Monday, June 18, 2012

Strong Spring for American Arts and Crafts

Recent sales show surprising strength in a number of sectors of the market for American Arts and Crafts and suggest that the fall out of the most recent financial crisis may well be past.  Not surprisingly, the high end market has continued to remain strong (the 1% have continued to set record prices in virtually all markets).  The general strength of the middle market (a better barometer for the health of the market in general) seems to be increasing as well.

The sale this weekend at Rago Arts and Center demonstrated strength across all sectors of the Arts and Crafts (and some modernism) with over 88 percent of all lots selling.  The weakest sector at the moment (whether through lack of desire in general, or pricing pressure) appears to be mid century ceramics.  The work of Gertrud and Otto Natzler, for instance, sold poorly with 5 of the 6 lots offered not selling.  There seems to be a general downward pressure of the market for the Natzlers with a number of recent lots not selling or hitting pre-sale estimates.  

When exceptional pieces do turn up, however, the prices have remained strong.   

Arts and Crafts ceramics did very well at the sale, with a number of pieces far exceeding their pre-sale estimates.  Of particular note was the sale's first lot: an early and rare center bowl by Paul Revere Pottery's Saturday Evening Girls which sold for $75,000 (set. 17,500-22,500). 

Decorated by Frances Rocchi in 1909, the large size and crisp decoration of the piece obviously convinced collectors to bid.  Created using the traditional technique known as cuerda secca, the glazes on the piece are kept separate by a line of black wax resist that is painted on or filled into an incised space.  During the firing process, the wax burns off leaving the pigment behind and creating the distinct fields of color evident in the example above.

A few lots later (17 to be precise), the exuberance of this sale seemed like a distant memory as a vase executed by Frederick Hurten Rhead and Agnes Rhead at University City sold for $120,000 (well beyond its 10-15K estimate).  

Rhead's work has sold strongly in the past (notably at Rago's where a vase dating ca. 1914-17 sold to the Two Red Roses Foundation for $430,000 + commission in March 2007) but his smaller pieces like this have tended to be priced much more modestly, as the estimate indicated.  University City was a short lived venture–lasting from 1909-11–that brought together some of the most important figures in ceramics including Rhead, Taxile Doat, and Adelaide Alsop Robineau.  The english born ceramist is among the most influential designers of the first half of the 20th century (working at a number of companies including Vance-Avon, Weller, Jervis, Arequipa, and eventually Homer Laughlin) but is remarkably unknown outside of design circles.  The achievement for which he is best remembered is Fiesta Ware.  

Other highlights of the sale included a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost that, despite some minor work, hammered in at a respectable 80K; an important set of doors made by Philadelphia craftsman Samuel Yellin; and an exceptional vase by the Martin Brothers firm of England.

This spring also saw a remarkable collection of Gustav Stickley's early furniture (brought to market for the first time) that John L. Jerome purchased for his home "La Hacienda" in 1902.  The sale at Treadway gallery in May was one of the few places to see Stickley furniture in the bright green color which was often favored by clients.  Although we tend to think of Arts and Crafts as brown and blocky, Stickley and others often dyed their work with vivid colors.  Unfortunately, these anodyne dyes have proved to be extremely fragile when exposed to UV light and as a result, the traces that remain are often seen only in the insides of drawers and cabinets.  The collection was remarkable not only for the early examples it contained, but for the condition the pieces remained in.  Not surprisingly, even examples of forms that were fairly common achieved exceptional prices.

During my May trip to Chicago with my MA students we had a chance to preview the sale and examine the pieces first hand.  Among the most impressive objects we saw was a Chalet desk, a fairly pedestrian thing for the most part which typically sells in the 2,000 to 3,000 dollar range.  The example in this sale however was bright green, largely as a result of remaining in a second floor room for the past 110 years and had its original leather surface and basket, which is fairly rare.  

It's useful to keep in mind that the depth of color evident on the front is somewhat muted, since the desk was placed against a wall and the front would have been exposed to UV light which damages the dye for more than a century.  A vies of the back of the desk gives a much better sense of how much color Stickley's furniture added to the interior.

Another remarkable piece that retained an original leather top was a 1901 library table that was finally hammered in at $325,000 (well beyond its 40-60K estimate).  Among the rarest of forms, the 1901 furniture is notable for reversed tapering legs, thick slabs of oak, and exquisitely handled mortise and tenon joinery.  Apparently too expensive and time-consuming to make, these design features were abandoned within a year as Stickley moved towards less labor intensive construction, a trend that would continue to accelerate throughout his career.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Arts and Crafts market continues to thrive despite a lack of attention paid to it throughout the year by the larger auction houses.  Sotheby's Important 20th Century sale was basically devoid of Arts and Crafts (just 5 lots out of 126).  In recent sales, Sotheby's has been moving towards the mid century and contemporary market with these sales, but even this strategy is not without a certain amount of risk.  As the recent sale showed, the market for George Nakashima's work remains somewhat finicky and even important pieces if not priced to sell, will fail to attract the interest of buyers. 

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