Published: March 14, 2023
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Photos Courtesy Rago
LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. – On Tuesday, February 28, Rago offered nearly 150 lots from the collection of artist, collector and ceramics champion, Robert A. Ellison Jr, who donated more than 600 pieces over the course of his lifetime to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Achieving a total of $1,966,264 with 98 percent of lots finding new homes, the sale set multiple records, including those for George Ohr, Pewabic Pottery, Union Porcelain Works and Babs Haenen
“This one was personal,” David Rago told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “Fifty years is a long time for any relationship. And I don’t often think that provenance is all it’s made out to be. I mean, a bad pot is a bad pot no matter who owned it once. But provenance clearly had something to do with the results, and I’ve never seen a stronger ceramics sale, lot for lot. The total was more than double the high estimate, and it was hard, while calling this auction, to resist having a big smile. I think Robert Ellison was certainly smiling down on us.”
The author – or co-author – of two books on George E. Ohr (1857-1918), Ellison can safely be called an expert – if not THE expert – on the Arts and Crafts era potter, who Rago said “might have been IN the Arts and Crafts/Art Pottery period, but he was certainly not OF it.” Ellison’s collection offered 20 rare and unusual examples by Ohr, two of which brought the top two prices of the sale. Earning the top-lot honor at $107,100 – and selling to a private collector – was an exceptional and tall pitcher in pink glaze with sponged-on mustard and cobalt highlights and a unique ribbon handle that had been illustrated in both of Ellison’s books on Ohr: The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art & Life of George E. Ohr, by Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison and Eugene Hecht (1989) and George Ohr, Art Potter: The Apostle of Individuality (2006). An exceptional pitcher followed closely behind at $100,800, and also sold to a private collector. Rounding out Ohr’s highlights, and bringing $69,300 from a private collector – and setting a record for his bisque work – was a scroddled earthenware vase, just 4¼ inches high, that represented the second and final peak of Ohr’s creative expression. Also worth mentioning was a 9¼-inch-tall ring bottle in oxblood red glaze that sold to an unidentified museum for $69,300.Eight examples by the late Nineteenth/early Twentieth Century London potters, the Martin Brothers, were in the sale, including two of their perennially favorite “Wally-Bird” tobacco jars. Sharing the second highest result of the day at $100,800 was an 18½-inch-tall example Rago said was “a great Martin bird with scale and expression, difficult to find in such original condition.”
A second Wally-bird tobacco jar, made by Robert Wallace Martin for Martin Brothers, that stood just 10½ inches tall that had been featured in 1978 in Sotheby’s Belgravia exhibition, “The Martin Brothers Pottery Exhibition” and published in Malcolm Haslam’s The Martin Brothers Potters (2006) sold within estimate for $23,940.
According to Rago, “decades ago” he had sold Ellison a large and early Pewabic Pottery vase with cyclamen leaf decoration by Mary Chase Perry (1867-1961). When it was included in Ellison’s collection, Rago sold it to the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement for $88,200, “a record price, by a lot.”
A rarity Rago never thought he’d get the chance to handle was a “Century” vase by Karl MÃ¼ller for Union Porcelain Works (UPW), which sold for $60,480 to a private collector previously unknown to Rago. Considered one of about a dozen made in this 13-inch-tall size, it relates to a pair of larger, 22¼-inch-tall vases designed for the UPW’s booth at the Centennial International Exposition in 1876 that are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the High Museum of Art and published on the cover of Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen’s American Porcelain 1770-1920 (1989).
A Fulper Pottery Vasekraft table lamp, made between 1911 and 1917, in a leopard-skin crystalline glazed stoneware and circular leaded glass shade with angular rim decoration, earned another record price: $44,100 from a private collector. Rago said the form has “always represented the acme of Fulper’s early production, [lamps] were among the only ceramic and glass lamps produced by a major maker during the Arts and Crafts period.”
Late Twentieth Century works were also represented in Ellison’s collection, led at $15,120 by “Ebb-Tide,” a 1988 porcelain, pigments and glaze piece by Babs Haenen (Dutch, b 1948), which related to an example donated to the Metropolitan Museum by Ellison that set a record for the artist. Rago said he had a number of bidders pursuing it, including ones from Europe; a private collector prevailed over competitors.
The auction’s catalog included an essay by Ellison’s daughter, Hillary, in which she described her father as “a hunter.” His first purchase in the early 1970s was a Dedham blue and white crackle-glazed plate with rabbit decoration; it led him down a rabbit hole of research into Hugh C. Robertson (1845-1908), Dedham Pottery’s founder. The sale at Rago offered 11 lots of pottery designed by Robertson for Dedham, a selection topped at $16,380, by a 7½-inch-tall experimental stoneware vase with volcanic-glaze that also relates to one Ellison donated to the Metropolitan Museum.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, 609-397-9374, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ragoarts.com.
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