Hunting & Gathering by Laura Beach

My name is Laura and I have a master’s degree in business administration. There, I’ve said it.

Anyone who knows me will wonder what I was doing in an MBA program. I wonder myself. At the time — this would be the early 1980s — it was just something that people did; a greed-is-good decade response to the anti-materialism of the 1960s and 1970s.

After a stint at a Fortune 50 company and another at an ad agency not unlike Sterling Cooper of Mad Men fame — where, incidentally, I met the mastermind of the Winter Antiques Show’s resurgence, Chanel executive Arie L. Kopelman — I returned to my first love, the visual arts, and soon found myself in the gloriously unregimented and stridently unconventional— dare we say unbusinesslike? — business of antiques.

In B-school, I learned that, in macroeconomic terms, a “perfect market” is one with many buyers and sellers, few regulations, high access to information and low barriers to entry and exit. That pretty much describes e-commerce, which, as Amazon’s latest disappointing profits confirm, is less than perfect. Go figure.

Aggregately, the antiques industry is much changed since the heady years of the 1980s. Ascribe some of the change to cultural drift in the aftermath of the major systemic shocks of the last decade and a half: the catastrophe of 9/11, successive tech booms and the Great Recession. Shows and shops have disappeared. Those that remain work harder than ever to engage a public mesmerized by electronics.

But for all the change, perfect — or near perfect — markets remain in the antiques business, pockets of enterprise so successful that it is worth examining what makes them so. As recounted in this issue in our review of Crocker Farm’s July 19 auction, the market for American pottery may be one of them. The sale drew nearly 600 bidders, more than a hundred of whom were in the room, an uncommon sight these days.

Featuring Nineteenth Century American stoneware and redware, the sale was classical in at least one respect. It offered good supply at an attractive range of prices, from $100 to $400,000. But there is more to pottery’s appeal. It is, quite literally, earthy; an art form both sculptural and painterly offering compelling access to the spirit of the maker.

Finally, and this goes to the heart of what it means to collect Americana, Nineteenth Century American pottery speaks to a history and identity both national and regional, to a tension — sometimes subtle, often not — ever present in our daily discourse.

Collectors clubs such as the American Ceramics Circle and scholarly journals such as Chipstone Foundation’s Ceramics in America have done much to foster interest in pottery. With its well-researched catalogs and beautifully presented sales, so too has Crocker Farm. As I watched the pageant of pieces from Vermont to Texas cross the block, it occurred to me that, not only are there perfect markets, there are perfect marketeers. Some of them sell antiques.


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