Published: October 8, 2019
Review and Onsite Photos by W.A. Demers, Additional Photos Courtesy of Rago
LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. – “Wally Birds,” a sizable flock of them, crossed the block on September 21, as Rago brought to auction a single-owner collection of Martin Brothers pottery. The 27-piece grouping, the Andrew Furer and Elle Douglas collection, which included more than 20 single, double and triple bird-form humidors and vessels, represented one of the largest single-owner collections of Martin Brothers ever offered at auction and came to Rago via UK-based dealer, Alison Davey of AD Antiques. While the results were not as heady as in 2018 when Rago successfully sold a large Martin Brothers “Wally Bird” for $112,500, the top lot in this sale, a tall bird tobacco jar, 1899, salt-glazed stoneware, ebonized wood, head incised R.W. Martin + Bros. London + Southall 11-1899, stood head and shoulders above the rest at 16½ inches on the base. He brought $62,500 from an online bidder. Single bird vessels sold for $60,000 each, while a tall bird tobacco jar sold for $56,250 and a small triple bird tobacco jar brought $52,500.
Martin Brothers (1873-1923) was a London-based pottery manufacturer owned and operated by four brothers, Wallace, Walter, Charles and Edwin, whose productions bridged the gap between the Victorian design sensibilities of the late Nineteenth Century and the English studio pottery movement of the early Twentieth Century. Martin Brothers produced stoneware pottery, broadly referred to as Martinware, including bowls, vessels, tiles and novelties that were often rendered in a whimsical yet highly skillful style. While all Martinware is highly valued on the secondary market, it is the manufacturer’s bird-form vessels, referred to as “Wally Birds” by collectors, that are the most passionately sought-after.
The birds’ desirability stems from many factors, according to Davey: “the scale, the condition, the provenance, the quality of the modeling, but perhaps more than anything, the expression,” she said. They derive their nickname from Robert Wallace Martin, the principal head of the factory and mostly responsible for the modeling. Charles ran the shop and gallery at High Holborn, London, while Edwin was the principal decorator and Walter the thrower. Robert captured the many real-world characters of Victorian London, creating a species of feathered avatars with quizzical squint or disdainful looks in their large eyes and decidedly human poses. The Martin Brothers’ work was highly collectible even at the time of production,” said Davey. “They were patronized by some of the leading philanthropists, merchants and politicians of the day. It is said that their grotesque ‘Wally Birds’ were modeled on leading public figures of the day.” There are Monk birds with tonsures, barristers with appropriate headgear and others that are simply grotesque – but lovable for the right collector.
Their utility? Davey points out that although some are referred to as tobacco jars or humidors, none are really suitable for storing smoking materials because, although hollow, they are not air-tight. The ability to lift off the head of a Wally Bird is essentially a function of a collector’s whimsey. The heads can thus be turned in different directions upon the body to produce a different aspect in display or – if in a collection of multiple birds – to simulate a group in conversation.
The collection was 12 years in the making by a couple who wanted examples that were exceptional. Davey explained that the philanthropists, who are devoted to animal rescue, have a different focus in life now with grandchildren and did not wish to keep their collection behind glass.
“David [Rago], Andrew [Furer] and I were pleased with the sale,” Davey said afterwards. A total of 22 of the 28 lots that were offered found new homes, and it was really encouraging to attract new bidders to the auction house. This was my first collaboration with Rago’s, and we are already looking at further projects in the future as our combined strengths in terms of experience and also our different customer base means that the vendors are especially well represented.”
It was definitely a day for the birds. Across the ocean from Lambertville in Maidenhead, England, Dawson’s was presenting a single-owner sale of Martin Brothers pottery. And Davey, while waiting for the Rago sale to begin, was bidding on some of the items. “I bought a couple of pieces at Dawson’s. The triple bird group was a fine example. Prices for the groups tend to be a little unpredictable; most collectors only want one example of a triple in their collections, so prices can be very strong when two new collectors compete, or weaker when the current crop of collectors have an example. Because all of the single birds are absolutely unique, collectors with the budgets are insatiable.”
In all, the Andrew Furer and Elle Douglas collection of Martin Brothers pottery totaled $769,800.
The weekend’s sales included early Twentieth Century design, contemporary design and studio ceramics, totaling $4,385,063.
Rago’s total for early Twentieth Century design, also conducted on September 21, was $660,625. It was led by Gustave Baumann’s (1881-1971) “Grand Canon [Canyon]” from the first printing, Santa Fe, N.M., 1934, which made $27,500. The color woodblock print on Zanders paper, pencil-signed, titled and numbered was from the collection of Marjorie Pierce Avery of Texas and had descended in the family.
Harriet Joor’s (1875-1965) exceptionally large early Newcomb College vase with calla lilies was bid to $21,250. The sale catalog characterized the 1904 signed, dated, and numbered vase, 11 by 5¼ inches, as “perhaps the prettiest piece of Newcomb College we have seen.”
Also finishing at $21,250 was a rare cuerda seca 19-tile ship frieze, Boston, 1910, some of which were impressed “Grueby Tile Boston,” each approximately 6 inches square.
Studio ceramics were the focus of the afternoon session on September 21, posting a total of $482,750. Top lots here included two pieces by Betty Woodman (1930-2018), “Divided Aegean Pillow Pitcher,” 1985, which took $56,250, leading the session, and “Morning Vase and Shadow,” New York, circa 1985, which earned $27,500. Perennial favorite Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) scored with a rare large Madoura charger, “Corrida,” France, 1953, which went out at $25,000.
Rago is widely credited with making the market for Modern design, selling studio furniture by top practitioners like Nakashima, Esherick, Powell and Evans, as well as Paley, Castle, Natzler, Tagliapietra, Scheier, Voulkos, Chihuly, Kagan, Noguchi, Ponti, Juhl and Jensen, to name a few. Its Modern design portion of the weekend’s sales totaled $1,921,625, led by a set of ten Conoid chairs by George Nakashima (1905-1990), New Hope, Penn., 1975, which brought $50,000.
Contemporary glass totaled $547,750. Leading the procession here was a Dan Dailey (b 1947) tall female figurative floor lamp striding to a sold price of $40,000. One of a limited edition of six pieces, the cast-bronze lamp features a distinctive blown-glass shade, applied gold-plated brass forms and Vitrolite mosaic base.
Before striking out to form his own studio, William Morris (b 1957) was at one time employed as a gaffer by American glass artist Dale Chihuly. He developed his own artistic style of glass blowing, represented in this sale by a monumental “Petroglyph” vessel, 1990, measuring 24¼ by 24½ by 6½ inches and alive with cave-drawing-like animal figures leaping across its midsection. The vessel was bid to $17,500.
Two other highlights from this session were Jon Kuhn’s (b 1949) large spinning sculpture “Impressive Jewel,” 2006, which brought $21,250, and “Little Arcus,” 1990, created by Czechoslovakian husband and wife artists Stanislav Libensky (1921-2002) and Jaroslava Brychtova (b 1924), a cast glass piece measuring 8¾ by 7¾ by 1¾ inches that was bid to $20,000.
“I was quite pleased with the overall strength of decorative ceramics,” said David Rago, partner and co-director, design department. “We had a lot of pottery in the sale, from early Twentieth Century Arts and Crafts material to postwar modern, and a wonderful collection of European work starting with Martin Brothers and ending with Picasso. Almost across the board, interest was strong and the prices reflected that.
“Nakashima was also solid. We had a slightly smaller selection because we’re spreading out the work over four design sales this fall, in light of the merger with Wright. Still, we enjoyed considerable support.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For more information, www.ragoarts.com or 609-397-9374.
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