Published: December 8, 2015
Review by W.A. Demers
ALBANY, N.Y. — “Some of my best childhood memories were searching for stoneware,” writes Adam J. Weitsman in the frontispiece of the newly published Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection. “It is not about collecting the pieces; it is all about the hunt for them. My plan was always to donate the collection, so that everyone could enjoy it.”
Weitsman’s plan has been becoming a fait accompli over the past 20 years as the owner of an Owego, N.Y.-based scrap metal business, Upstate Shredding, has methodically donated stellar examples of American stoneware from the Nineteenth Century to the New York State Museum, forming one of the most comprehensive displays in the United States. Said the museum’s historian emeritus John Scherer, who authored Art for the People, “It is probably one of the best collections of American stoneware in the country. Each and every piece is a prime example of American folk art.”
And the state museum’s director Mark Schaming said, “The Weitsman collection is America’s premier collection of decorated stoneware and we’re proud to make it available to all. The board of regents and the state museum are grateful that Adam Weitsman’s passion and generosity has allowed us to preserve, study, exhibit and now publish this remarkable collection of New York decorated stoneware.”
Weitsman, who was bitten by collecting bug when he was 11 years old and with his father dug up a couple of stoneware beer bottles on their property, initially donated 120 pieces from his collection to the museum. The highlights of that gift were featured in a May 2010 cover story in this publication. Since then, he has continued to add to the collection at the state museum, resulting in the beautifully produced and comprehensive — for now — book.
And so here stoneware and American folk art aficionados finally have the best of both worlds. They can either travel to Albany to the New York State Museum, home to the Weitsman Stoneware Collection, comprising more than 370 pieces of decorated stoneware from the Nineteenth Century, or they can turn the pages of this large-format hardcover book with dust jacket — 10½ by 14 inches — and see piece after stellar piece handsomely photographed and described. Indeed, space considerations at the museum dictate regularly rotating the stoneware on display, so the book may actually provide the most comprehensive opportunity to experience the variety and uniqueness of Weitsman’s collection.
The book’s title captures perfectly the role that stoneware, the basic utilitarian ware of the time that served many useful functions, played in Nineteenth Century America. Primarily used to prepare, store and serve food and beverages, these vessels did not require some of the wonderful, sometimes witty decoration they received at the hands of the potter, but decorated they were. And the fact that New York State, one of the top producers of stoneware at the time, owing to its excellent network of canals, ports and turnpikes, means that many of the examples in Weitsman’s collection are New York pieces.
This came in to play in July of this year when one of the pinnacles of American folk art — a rare 4-gallon stoneware jar decorated with a large cobalt stampeding elephant, stamped “West Troy / N.Y. / Pottery,” circa 1880 — was offered at auction by Sparks, Md.-based Crocker Farm. Weitsman, bidding on the phone, won it for $166,750. “I had never before seen a design of this caliber and it fills out a nice space in my collection,” Weitsman told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “The fact that it’s a West Troy piece makes it even nicer.”
What few observers may have known at the time, however, was that Art for the People, due out in September, was at the printer being laid out, Weitsman having instructed the firm to hold a page in the then-forthcoming book for the elephant jar. “Before the auction, I put the elephant in the book,” Weitsman told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “I took a risk.”
Lately, however, the collector, is looking outside of New York for great examples by other potteries. In fact, at that same auction he paid $43,200 for a rare 4-gallon stoneware jug with profuse cobalt flowering urn decoration that was produced at the Newport, Penn., pottery of Michael and Theophilus Miller, circa 1870. The exuberantly brushed floral spray virtually covers the front of the 15½-inch-high jug, extending from its shoulder to the base. The Miller jug is not included in the book, but in a section titled “Farther Afield,” we see pieces from Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada.
The New York State Museum is at 260 Madison Avenue, and open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 5 pm, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free. For information, 518-474-5877 or www.nysm.nysed.gov.
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