Published: January 4, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Skinner Inc.
MARLBOROUGH, MASS. – Skinner’s Modern and post-Modern sale ending December 22 included about 70 lots of midcentury studio pottery, with significant examples by Pablo Picasso, Dame Lucie Rie, Maija Grotell, Michael Cohen and William Wyman with 36 lots from a single-owner collection of Gerry Williams pottery. Prices achieved reflected the current collectibility of the maker, with some very good buys among the lesser recognized names, reflecting the fact that, with few exceptions, many works by studio potters are undervalued in today’s marketplace.
Aside from the Picasso vase mentioned in the broad review of the sale, the highest prices were achieved for works by Dame Lucie Rie and Maija Grotell, both well-known names in the studio pottery world. A circa 1972 green pitted stoneware bowl, slightly over 9 inches in diameter, by Rie was the most sought-after, selling for $6,250. She was an Austrian-born British potter, born in 1902, who fled Nazi Austria, settling in London and achieving international fame with her utilitarian works. Another lot, with 11 pieces of tableware along with three publications about Rie, also sold for $6,250. Her works are in several museums, and her studio was moved and reconstructed in the new ceramics gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in 2009. A signed circa 1945 18-inch vase by Maija Grotell realized $2,250. Her circa 1945 12-inch charger seemed like a good buy, selling on a single bid for just $1,250. She had been born in Finland in 1902 and settled in New York in 1927, because she believed “women potters had a better chance to succeed here.” Her work is in numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and others.
A group of about 25 pieces of pottery by Anne “Pete” Baker surprised Skinner’s department head and others. The pots had been found by Steve Fletcher on a house call in Westport, Mass., where Baker lived and where a strong local following for her work has developed. Baker was best known for her work in historic preservation, starting her own restoration company, A.W. Baker Restorations, and she authored several books on the subject. She served as consultant for many area preservation groups, including the Newport Restoration Foundation, the Martha’s Vineyard Historical and Preservation Society and the Westport Historical Society. Her pottery is little known outside her local area and prices realized fell within estimates, although one lot of three pieces tripled the estimate, bringing $875.
Boston was home to several studio potters in the postwar era. Although Michael Cohen and William Wyman won numerous awards for their work in the 1950s and 1960s, prices for their works today do not reflect the quality of design and workmanship of their pots. An unusual slab vase by Wyman with a photographic image of a young woman, an experimental technique, on one side and an image of a Japanese landscape on the other side, realized $500, as did a large Brutalist slab-constructed mirror. A lot of five small bowls reached just $250. His work is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Renwick Gallery and several others. A lot with a vase and a bowl by Michael Cohen sold for a low $250. Cohen won the top prize, $500, at the juried 22nd Ceramics National Exhibition in 1963, and his work is in the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, as well as others.
Skinner’s offerings included 36 lots from a single-owner collection of pots made by Gerry Williams, who spent most of his career living and working in Dunbarton, N.H. Williams, who died in 2014, was one the most influential potters of his time. He was a teacher, an innovator and an experimenter who freely shared his glaze recipes and techniques. He was New Hampshire’s first Artist Laureate in 1998, and in 2005 he received New Hampshire’s Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award. In 1972 he founded, and edited for the next 30 years, Studio Potter magazine, which he described as a publication by potters for potters. Starting in 1972, he annually hosted at his studio the Phoenix Workshops, bringing together aspiring potters and nationally known potters for educational workshops. He often said, “Pottery is what I do, who I am, where I come from.” His work has been included in numerous international exhibitions, as well as many in the United States.
The sale included some of Williams’ scarcest work. The collection had been assembled over a 30-year period by a woman who has said, “I was practically a member of the family. I helped at the workshops and did whatever needed doing. I was very friendly with his two daughters, and I bought things at his yearly studio sale, and many of the pieces in my collection were Christmas and birthday gifts to me from Gerry and his wife. My husband and I will be downsizing, and this just seemed like the right time to let others enjoy Gerry’s work.”
A 16-inch-tall “inside/outside” form vase sold for $500. The collector said she had paid that price for it and remembered that it had been on a table in the Williams studio for several years, marked NFS. A glass topped coffee table, with two slab-built blue/tan supports, very likely unique, earned $3,750. There were several lots with vases and bowls of copper-red porcelain, a glaze color Williams spent years working to perfect. One lot with two bowls sold for $250. A decorative “celestial teapot,” one of only six made, sold for $406. There were several lots with glaze colors rarely seen, and a lot of four “bird whistles” sold for $531. These were the least expensive items Williams ever made. Surviving invoices show that stores like Filene’s sold these for $4 each, netting Williams $2 each.
After the sale, the consignor of the Williams collection said that she was very satisfied with the way Skinner handled the sale and that her communications with Dan Ayers, the department head, had been smooth.
There were examples of studio pottery by other makers: Makoto Yabe, Malcolm Wright, Jeff Shapiro and an outstanding, abstract sculpture by Marlis Schratter, which brought $625.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For those wishing to learn more about studio pottery, there are a number of books. Perhaps the most useful would be the 400-page American Ceramics: The Collection of the Everson Museum of Art, published in 1989, and the 418-page American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity, 1940-1979. For information, www.skinnerinc.com or 508-970-3211.
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