Published: June 30, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Humler & Nolan
CINCINNATI, OHIO – A 30-year run came to an end June 20-21 as pottery auction house Humler & Nolan hammered down the gavel for the very last time to an empty gallery. The firm was renowned for its market share and expertise in the sale of Rookwood pottery, which also has roots in Cincinnati since 1880. The firm hosted an annual Rookwood sale and ended its tenure on the 30th edition, Rookwood XXX.
The auction house wrote in a farewell letter, “In 1991, Riley Humler and Randy Sandler presented the public with the Glover Sale, a three-day auction of the best Rookwood Pottery collection ever amassed… The sale was a great success, but more than that, it created an industry and a tradition. With this in mind, it is with heavy hearts that we announce that Rookwood XXX will be the final auction for Humler & Nolan.
“Over the past 30 years we have learned quite a bit, met new friends and mourned the loss of old ones. We have set records and we have weathered recessions. However, time moves on and things do change. We wish we could throw one last bash and say goodbye face to face, but alas, that is not the world in which we currently live. All of us here at Humler & Nolan, Karen Singleton, Riley Humler, Jeff Engel and Mark Mussio, sincerely thank you for your business. We thank you for your trust and your loyalty for the past 30 years. Most of all, we thank you for your friendship.”
We spoke with auctioneer Riley Humler a few days before the sale got underway, where he related that the response to the firm’s closing has been heartfelt. “We’ve heard a lot of nice comments; people were very sweet with what they said to us. They are universally saying they hate to see us go. They appreciate what we’ve done and added to the art pottery collecting world, in terms of scholarship and integrity, and they hate to think we’re not going to be around anymore.”
Humler, now 77 years old, said the closure is a perfect storm between career directions and a sagging pottery market. He is unsure what the future holds for him. “Covid has made a lot of people, myself included, think that we better smell the roses,” he said. “I’ve been asked by several people if I would throw in with them and there’s a few I would consider. I’ve enjoyed the stay-at-home aspect of the pandemic. That may be self-limiting and I may get bored and do something else. I haven’t made a decision, but I’m considering my options. It’s nice to be wanted.”
Humler & Nolan got its start with the nearly 1,200-lot Glover sale in 1991 when the Cincinnati Art Galleries, directed by Randy and Michele Sandler, bought the entire Glover collection of Rookwood, one of the greatest Rookwood collections ever amassed, and decided to disperse it at once with an auction. Humler had worked for Sandler for a few years at that point.
“It was a lot of work to put the sale together,” he said. “This was during the time when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and we were about to go to war – we had no idea what was going to happen with that. We also had no idea how many Rookwood collectors there were in the world. We had some competitors say we were going to destroy the market by selling 1,200 lots over three days, and it was the opposite. We could have sold 1,200 more.”
In addition to the 1,200 lots, the firm allowed bidders to draw numbers to purchase from a selection of 400 lesser-value works. In total, 1,600 lots sold and produced $2.5 million in total sales. That auction produced a then-record for Rookwood and likely any American art pottery when a Shirayamadani electroplated Sea Green vase sold for $188,000.
The following years saw a number of records set by the firm. Among them was a $90,750 result in 1999 for a Rookwood Iris glaze plaque with ships, $121,000 for a large Cowan Pottery Jazz bowl in 2009, and $350,750 for a Shiriyamadani Black Iris vase featuring cranes with electroplated silver and copper. The latter still holds the auction record for any piece by Rookwood and was purchased by the Cincinnati Art Museum. Humler says he probably won’t see the record broken within his lifetime.
Humler said he is also proud of the lesser records the firm has set in production pottery and standard wares – on which he worked tirelessly to elevate the market. “Things like bookends and paperweights,” he said. “We’ve sold bookends for over $10,000. There have been a lot of records that we’ve set and are rather proud of. We have tried to know the good, bad and indifferent in Rookwood and other potteries, and we promoted some good things that other people discounted.”
Another sale that Humler remembers with fondness is the 2015 auction of the Monson-Baer collection of Roseville pottery. Randy Monson authored two titles on Roseville and the auction offered up 802 examples. It was led by a $15,930 result for a Futura line “Tank” vase.
“We were lucky enough to represent that,” Humler said. “We sold it at a time when pottery was kind of slipping, but it went through the roof. And credit to them as collectors, it was wonderful stuff.”
The Sandlers would depart the firm in 2009 to focus on their painting gallery. Humler still credits Randy Sandler for founding the firm’s culture in integrity.
“I started with Randy Sandler and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a guy who, if I needed a moral compass, he instilled it in me. He’s a hard-nosed businessman and a smart guy, but the most honest man I’ve met. When we started with the Glover auction, we sat down to think about what we would like an auction to be, given all the bad auctions we’ve been to throughout the years. All the places that don’t describe well, don’t state the problems or have a preview in a well-lit room. We wanted to have an auction where people could come and see things and know what they were buying.
“We guarantee what we sell, period. Its very simple. None of that ‘if,’ ‘as’ or ‘but’ stuff. We guarantee what we sell to be what it is and the condition we sell it as. I give Randy the credit for that. We always put our condition reports in the catalog, you don’t have to search for one, ask for one, go to another site – it’s all there. We’re not perfect, we have made mistakes and missed things, but we’ve always done right and made up for it. We’ve always tried to do it right. And if nothing else, that’s the one thing I’m proudest of.”
Parsing between Humler, Sandler and the current staff of Mark Mussio, Jeff Engel and Karen Singleton, the natural question emerges: where is Nolan? When Humler was starting out, he had an old sign from his grandfather’s business that operated at the turn of the century called Humler and Nolan. Bert Humler and his partner William “Bill” Nolan ran a number of ventures together at the time, including a social club and a cigar business in Louisville. Humler never met his grandfather or Bill Nolan, but decided to carry the business name on.
Before the sale got underway, Humler predicted that his final auction would be strong.
“I think people have been sitting on their wallets for two months and they want to spend some money,” he said at the time. “We’ve had a lot of interest, more signups on LiveAuctioneers than any sale we’ve ever had. That may partly be because people can’t come, but we’ve been inundated with absentee and phone call requests, so it’s looking pretty good at this point.”
It looked good the whole way through as the 1,214-lot sale sold for $1,092,887. The offerings were drawn from more than 100 consignors.
Rookwood XXX was led by an Iris glaze vase with white Easter Lilies painted in 1910 by Carl Schmidt. The 20½-high example sold for $25,830. Riley Humler first laid eyes on the vase when a gentleman pulled it from a beer cooler within a red wagon on his first appearance on Antiques Roadshow in June of 1997. “When he opened the cooler, out came one of the most beautiful Rookwood vases I had ever seen,” he wrote. “Yes, this very vase. I went on to appraise it for between $40,000 and $60,000 which at the time was a reasonable figure, and the vase and I went on to become highlights of the Cincinnati Antiques Roadshow for 1997.”
Over doubling the high estimate was an Aventurine glaze vase, 16 inches high, with images of seahorses and seaweed, produced at Rookwood in 1921 by Kataro Shirayamadani. It took $20,650. The catalog noted that it was perhaps the largest Aventurine glaze work they know and the most elaborately decorated example.
Others that would perform well included a French Red vase by Sara Sax, which was divided into five panels depicting flowers in an Art Deco style, all on a matte black ground. Sax had completed it in 1922 and the 9½-inch vase would sell for $12,390. Preceding it by 19 years was a dogwood-decorated vase in a Sea Green glaze, painted by Constance Baker in 1903. The firm called it one of Baker’s best efforts and the 11-inch vase would take $8,555. Doubling the estimate for $8,260 was a yellow rose-decorated vase with a standard glaze produced by Kataro Shirayamadani in 1898.
The firm said they would occasionally see the Rookwood logo on the side of a work, but none accompanied with a picture of the painter himself, as was the case on an 1891 pitcher produced by Matt Daly. “Not only was it charming, and it involved the Rookwood logo, but it was really well done. Everybody fell in love with that piece,” Humler said. The painter sits on a swing with a wide floppy hat as he paints the Rookwood logo on the side of the piece as if he was painting a sign. The pitcher measures 7¾ inches high and sold for $5,670.
Four Rookwood Native American portrait works dating from 1898-1901 were among the sale’s top earners, all with provenance to the Elizabeth Rudisill collection. Humler said Rudisill was probably the first collector he ever knew in the pottery world and they came up together. She passed away 18 months ago. Her passion was in Native American portraiture works and she had close to 50 examples. The firm sold half in its November 2019 sale and offered the rest here. A tyg with a pair of Native Americans on horseback from the Kiowa tribe, worked by Grace Young and based on a photograph by F.A. Rinehart, sold for $20,650. It was 7¾ inches high. Following behind at $12,390 was a handled vase by Matt Daly featuring a portrait of Jim Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux, 13¼ inches. From Artus Van Briggle came a standard glaze vase, 10¾ inches, with the image of Chief Black Eye of the Blackfoot Sioux that sold for $9,735. And at $6,195 was a portrait vase painted by Grace Young of Oglala Sioux Chief Last Horse, 8½ inches tall.
Among the serene Rookwood landscape plaques was a vellum example, “Autumn,” made in 1929 by Fred Rothenbusch. It sold for $7,965. Rothenbusch worked for Rookwood from 1896 to 1931. A plaque featuring the Venice Harbor by Carl Schmidt, circa 1916, would sell for $6,490. With provenance from the family of Schmidt and still in its original frame, it logged 42 bids. From Lorinda Epply came a cool landscape of tangled pines on a hillside with a lake in the background. It was done in 1916 and the auction house said it was the best work on a plaque by Epply that they had ever seen. It sold for $6,195. “Misty Morning,” a vellum plaque with birch trees surrounding a lake was produced by E.T. Hurley in the early 1940s and it would sell for the same price.
The first day of the sale was led by 698 lots of art pottery that spanned many other American makers. Leading that day was a monumental Weller Eocean vase painted by Albert Haubrich and made for the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. It was purchased by Adolphus Busch, of American brewing notoriety, at the fair and would pass down through three more generations of the Busch family until it was sold in 1988. It was there purchased by Marvin and Jeanette Stofft, in whose collection it remained ever since. The vase sold for $25,830. Another Weller Eocean vase from the same World’s Fair, with the same line of provenance, featured white and blue roses painted by Mae Timberlake. The 24-inch-high example would sell for $8,260.
Other Weller highlights included a monumental iridescent Weller Sicard vase measuring 15 inches tall that sold for over double estimate at $8,555. It featured teasel flowers among foliate and star florets on a burgundy ground.
A strong selection of Newcomb College Pottery from the Rudisill collection was led by a $16,520 result in a high glaze scenic vase, 9 inches high, painted by Leona Nicholson in 1906. It was thrown by Joseph Meyer and had only faint crazing, otherwise it was mint. Behind at $9,440 was a vase decorated with two rings of butterflies, painted by Sadie Irvine in 1926. It measured 9 inches high. An 11-1/8-inch vase showing a full moon behind a Cyprus tree with hanging Spanish moss, worked by Anne Frances Simpson in 1925, sold for $7,375.
Four lots from the end of the auction came the Rookwood emblem, a ceramic logo stamp from the pottery with an impressed 1901 date to the handle. It would sell for $2,360 on a $250 estimate. Humler said he’s only ever seen one other, an example in his own collection which was not as nice as the one in the sale. Humler began to describe the consignor in a way that spoke to his affection for the many people he had come to know through the business over the years.
“It came from the estate of a local fellow, a delightful guy who we knew forever,” he said. “He was a Vietnam war-era veteran who had been wounded and came back in a wheelchair. Just a delightful guy, he passed away eight months ago. It’s one of those things that, if I never do anything again in this business, I’ll miss the people, like that gentleman. There are so many good people you meet. By and large, the people we have gotten to deal with over the years have been delightful, they’ve supported us and we’ve tried to support them.”
When Humler looks back over his career with the auction, he does so through the catalogs the firm produced for each sale. He said he does not remember every single piece – the sheer volume proves insurmountable – but each one stands alone as a testament to a champion of the genre who held it up and knocked it down.
“Over the years we’ve had some fabulous Rookwood come through here,” he said. “And when I go back and look at the old catalogs, it blows me away. We’ve sold tens of thousands of pieces – boy we’ve had some fabulous ones. That part of it has been great fun.”
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.humlernolan.com or 513-381-2041.
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