What's It Worth? Highly Collectible American Art Pottery
One of the most pleasing types of antique collecting would have to be pottery.
Yes, pottery. The word ‘pottery’ sounds so simple, but in fact, American art pottery was once a very prolific endeavor and continues to be highly collectible to this day.
Most towns had local potters making utilitarian vessels for daily use. For instance, thousands of potters in New England made hefty jugs for alcohol and large vats for pickling. Towns like Peoria, Illinois, turned out plain brown jugs and ewers that – in spite of their mundane coloring – are sought after by collectors.
Every beer brewer in America contracted with local potters to make beer mugs, and they are doubly collectible because of that advertising.
But nowhere in the U.S. was pottery art as prevalent as in Ohio. Several famous pottery firms were located there, and today’s story is about a 2003 appraisal fair that Katrina and I participated in.
The appraisal fair was being broadcast on a morning radio show, and a woman brought in a particularly gorgeous mug by Rookwood (in Cincinnati), probably the most noted maker of art pottery in the U.S. Upon examination, we discovered it was by Rookwood’s most famous artist, Japanese immigrant Kataro Shirayamadani. It was decorated in a simple glaze, with large koi fish swimming and nipping at the tail of a mermaid. The mermaid’s sterling silver body cascaded around the lip of the mug, with her tail hanging down near a koi’s nose.
Her nude torso protruded up and was the thumb piece on the pottery. Furthermore, the sterling silver portion was stamped Gorham!
This piece was dated with Rookwood’s unique dating case for 1891, and further research indicated it may have been made for the 1892 Columbian Expedition. The owner explained that she found it at a yard sale along with 30 others, but everyone was grabbing them and she only got this one. Her cost was $5.
When I offered her $10,000, the radio host was very excited, as was the owner. I knew I could sell it for $12,000 to $14,000 and was surprised when she passed on my offer. A week later, she called and asked if the offer still stood, and I said of course! A year later, I sold it at auction in New York with a hammer price of $15,000 and an eventual check to us, after fees, for $12,800. A modest profit, but very satisfying to have owned such a historical piece.
As discussed in earlier columns, value is complicated. To the person who sold it, it was worth $5. To the person who bought it, it was worth $5. To me, it was worth $10,000. But to the collector who bought it at auction, it was worth $15,000.
Pictured are two similar examples of Shirayamadani’s work for Rookwood. Please note that most Weller, Rookwood and Peoria Pottery items are worth $100-$1,000 each. The items pictured are extraordinary examples worth $5,000-$15,000.
Next week? More on Ohio and their famous artists!
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