“You broke it, you bought it.” That shopworn phrase got turned around when the hammer fell and shattered a record at the Rago Arts and Auction Center Saturday, March 10. A rare vase by Frederick H. Rhead, the English “father of Fiesta ware,” sold for $516,000.
Made in Santa Barbara, Calif., around 1915 and decorated with a stylized landscape, the 11-inch vase sold to the Two Red Roses Foundation, Tarpon Springs, Fla., a nonprofit educational institution dedicated to the acquisition, restoration and public exhibition of important examples of furniture, pottery and tiles, lighting, textiles and fine arts from the American Arts and Crafts movement.
The foundation’s founder and president, Florida businessman Rudy Ciccarello, was in the gallery and ultimately prevailed after dueling with a phone bidder over the vase, according to David Rago. The auctioneer said he was sure the Rhead vase will be shown in an upcoming museum exhibition at some point.
“Frederick Rhead was an incredibly talented artist,” said Rago, who has previously described the ceramicist in Antiques Roadshow segments as “the Forrest Gump of American art pottery.” Rago said, “Rhead’s work is all over the place and he was involved in a lot of pottery. He learned his craft in England, then came to the United States and fused our decorative trends with his European tastes, creating a style that was very individual and yet universally beautiful.”
Characterizing Rhead’s work as “plein air painting on ceramic,” Rago pointed out that the Santa Barbara vase was “technically perfect” in execution, created by an artist at the pinnacle of his career and emanated from a small studio that did not produce many Rhead pieces †”That’s why it’s a half-million-dollar vase,” he said. “I used to be able to say that [Rhead] was underappreciated. Those days are over.”
The Rhead vase was offered, together with more than 1,000 other Arts and Crafts period items, at the semiannual Craftsman Auction. Sale totals for the weekend topped $4 million.
The sale was “by far the best Arts and Crafts sale I have seen in my 23 years of auctions,” according to Rago, who with partners Jerry Cohen and Suzanne Perrault assembled three exceptional collections for the March 10 and 11 sale. In addition, Rago’s daughter, Denise Rago-Wallace, conducted a highly successful Roseville section, which was more than 90 percent sold.
The Rhead vase came from the private collection of Jim and Victoria Carter, as did a Harvey Ellis for Gustav Stickley inlaid desk with original glass inkwells, which nearly doubled its high estimate, selling for $21,600. The desk was inlaid with pewter, copper and fruitwoods and measured 43¾ by 30 by 113/8 inches.
Other pottery records were set at the auction, according to Rago. A Pewabic vessel covered in red, green and opalescent lustered glaze dripping over a matte blue background †noted as a “spectacular and rare example” in the catalog †made $24,000. Also breaking into record territory, according to Rago, was the $42,000 achieved by a stately Van Briggle early vase on stand, circa 1904, that possibly had been made for the St Louis World’s Fair. The large rare piece was embossed with green peacock feathers on a rich purple ground and, set on a bronze footed base, it stood 13 inches high.
There were other extraordinary pieces in the auction, many of which came out of Vancroft, the Wellsburg, W.Va., home designed by the Pittsburgh architects Alden and Harlow and built at a cost of more than $1 million as a hunting lodge for Joseph B. Vandergrift in 1901. And none perhaps was as compelling as an 8-foot-tall folk art screen housing 36 of Frank A. Rinehart’s photos of American Indians taken during the Indian Congress at the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha, Neb. The screen, one of 35 lots from Vancroft and, like the other items, coming to market for the first time, soared above its $30/50,000 estimate to bring $180,000.
Included in the offering from Vancroft was an exceptional custom designed dining room suite, including a Gustav Stickley custom-made massive sideboard with butterfly joints, circa 1901, that had come out of Vancroft’s dining room. The unmarked piece sold for $72,000, well above its high presale estimate. A set of 12 early dining chairs by Gustav Stickley, circa 1901, with drop-in leather-covered seats made $26,400, and a square top dining table, also from Vancroft’s dining room, was a rare form that was never offered in Stickley’s catalogs and its rarity ensured the $39,000 final bid. The table was complete with 15 11½-inch leaves, one 23-inch leaf with apron and three pairs of attachable legs for support when opening the table to its full 23-foot length. “It’s not just that these pieces were ‘fresh-to-market,'” said Rago, “but in many cases they are unique, there aren’t any more like them.”
A jewelry box by Charles Rohlfs, 1901, with riveted hammered copper hinges and wooden key on chain, was “very strong, in mint condition,” according to Rago and went out at $22,800, well above its $6/9,000 presale estimate.
“The Yellin gates were awesome,” said Rago, referring to a pair of wrought iron gates with vine motif and jester handle that, although unmarked, had been certified by Samuel Yellin Metalworkers. Each gate measured 74 by 30 inches and the pair swung way beyond their $6/9,000 presale estimate to sell for $42,000. Similarly a Samuel Yellin wrought iron ceremonial staff with ibis head inscribed “To Milton B. Medary from Samuel Yellin †1929,” a Philadelphia architect and longtime friend of Yellin’s, hammered to $14,400, more than quadruple its presale high estimate.
A small portion of the sale was the consignment by Garrison and Diana Stradling, respected scholar/dealers in American porcelain and pottery, of their “study” collection of American decorative ceramics, and these were offered as the first 30 lots sold. Most of the pieces met or slightly exceeded their reserve.
A highlight was a piece of George Ohr pottery, the only known “glaze test” vase, which featured a twisted and scrunched body covered in vertical swatches of six glazes, each noted in Ohr’s hand with batch numbers in a divided “pie” on the bottom. The vase realized $15,600. A squat stoneware lidded vessel by Frederick George Richard Roth that was topped by a sculptured brown bear, circa 1920s, went out at $6,600.
The sale also included a large collection of Handel and Tiffany lighting, a highlight of which was a Tiffany Studios table lamp with a green leaded glass shade in an oak leaf and acorn pattern rather than the usual floral motifs. The base was a Secessionist-style, three-socket bronze example with verdigris patina. The lamp realized $36,000.
Grueby was “very strong,” according to Rago, and he said bidders responded to the Newcomb College pieces as well.
Asked if he stood by his presale characterization as “the best” in this 23 years of auctions, Rago was sanguine, saying “Absolutely, this was it. I don’t know when we’ll get better material.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, www.ragoarts.com or 609-397-9374.