Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Craft Needs a Regular Auction

An auction market already exists, just not, with a few exceptions, a good one. Craft and ceramics in its various modes ends up every week in estate and decorative arts auctions. Because the scholarship is poor (even down to basics like misspelling the artist’s name) prices are depressingly low and results from these smaller events do not appear in auction databases. Until now there has not been a curated, dedicated, scholarly and regular market for high-craft. As Beatrice Chang from Dai Ichi Arts said at SOFA: Chicago last year, “a market that does not have a secondary market is not a market.” She is 100% right. 

Wes Cowan at Auction: SOFA Chicago, Fall 2010

Some argue that there is a secondary market and that galleries fill this role. This is an important contribution but it does not provide the full market. There are a few shortcomings to the private resale market. Firstly, private sales are not a matter of public record and later I will explain why this is important. Secondly, galleries process a relatively small number of works. Private dealers who specialize in this do more sales but I only know of three. By comparison we sold 306 lots in our last auction in less than three hours! Many more items are coming onto the market as the collector base from the last thirty years ages. One needs a system that grows with the incoming volume and the way new collectors collect.

Thirdly, existing craft galleries, now less in number than a decade ago, sell mostly to an existing market. Auction is the best way to attract new collectors. For instance, in our June auction there were 360 bidders from 15 countries! We have been in this business for 30 years and knew less than 15% of the bidders. Fourthly, auctions build confidence. When a new collector knows that there is a solid resale market, they “invest” more readily in contemporary work. Strong auctions, well researched, put fine craft on the same level as fine art as a cultural asset.

Auctions affect the gifting process. And this brings us back to public records. If you give work to a museum, getting that tax deduction can get tricky. The IRS requires comparable sales that are no more than three years old. Working with many appraisers as we do, we find them frustrated by the lack of craft sales data. As a result, they often cannot deliver the full value to their clients for tax deduction. The broader the sales database, the better it is for the gifting process.

What is the downside of a craft at auction? Auctions are good whipping boys, blamed by dealers for failed careers, for dropping prices and for flooding the market with too much art. Sometimes this is true but mostly these problems are not the fault of the auction. It is just the messenger. Failing careers are inevitable, auction or not. It is caused by a lack of continuing interest in that artist’s work and when this work comes up on auction and receives the dreaded “pass” this just shines a light on an existing condition. Whatever the medium, period or style only a small percentage make it into a strong resale market and from there to the high canon. Even in their lifetime only a small percentage of artists in any market retain or exceed original retail prices. Conversely one sees artists who struggled for years to get traction in the market, soar on auction.  The sword cuts both ways.

Good auctions build scholarship, encourage new blood, bring long lost masterpieces to the surface, and provide regular data for the market analysis and tax deductions. For instance, if you are giving a Voulkos stack to a museum anytime soon, your appraiser can cite our world record of $105,750 as its current value. The best price before that was under $70,000.

Auctions can be as useful for galleries as for collectors. Firstly, when everyone is selling, buy for stock. When we thought artists prices were too low on auction we bought, developed the market and resold the work later profitably within our gallery. When a work that had grown ‘tired’ in the gallery, we sent it onto auction where it almost always found a home and returned us the capital it had tied up. Either one has to live with the auction, as we did in our gallery, but it grew to be our friend over the years and hope that ours will do the same for you. Comments and suggestions are welcome.  Garth Clark

Friday, July 15, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright's Dinnerware

If one comes across a place setting of porcelain dinnerware by Frank Lloyd Wright, sorting out which edition it comes from is a little complex.  But first the hotel; Wright was commissioned in 1913 to design a Western-style hotel in Tokyo. Construction began on the Imperial Hotel (it was owned by the family of the Emperor) in 1917 and completed in 1922.  Wright designed every detail of the hotel's interior including the dinnerware that was produced by the Noritake Company.  

Frank Lloyd Wright "Cabaret" dinner service, 1962-1968.  Four, six-piece place settings, porcelain.  Manufactured for the Imperial Hotel.

 The Imperial Hotel, Tokyo 1923.

There were two designs. The first was printed with 22 carat gold and was produced from 1923 to 1933. This proved extremely expensive and so the so-called Cabaret service was introduced and in the opinion of some, including this writer, was the better service, a playful asymmetrical design of colored bubbles tumbling towards the center of the plate. The set looks particularly effective when stacked. The four settings on auction were acquired by a couple on regular trips to Japan. All were made for the hotel between 1962 and 1968 and the dates are part of the mark.  This work should not be confused with a limited edition from Heinz and Company that was issued in 1984, nor the second edition produced by Tiffany and Company. The works on this auction are not reproductions but the real thing.

The hotel, a masterpiece that combined Prairie and traditional Japanese architectural styles with a strong dash of arts and crafts, was unfortunately demolished in 1968 after weathering several earthquakes unharmed (due to its advanced engineering) to make way for a new rather anonymous high-rise building. It was a highly controversial move and one that is deeply regretted today.  At least the dinnerware survived!    

Garth Clark

Voulkos: Bull in a China Shop

Auctions unearth history. Works turn up out of the blue, out of the closet, out of the past. One only has to think of the Chinese pot that went from gathering dust in a British attic and sold on auction for $89 million. The arrival of Bull by Peter Voulkos is a welcome surprise and an exciting addition to the artist’s known oeuvre, authenticated in a letter from Rudy Autio, who was present and working with Voulkos when it was made. (Autio made a few bull sculptures of his own). 

Peter Voulkos Bull c. 1952 Glazed stoneware.

 Peter Voulkos, Bullfight, 1957, glazed painted stoneware. Marer Collection, Scripps College.

“I remember it well,” Autio recalls, “it was handbuilt and one of two bulls he made at the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena at the time-the other was somewhat more open. The slip-gaze is what we called “Trail Creek” which we used to dig near Bozeman, Montana and very useful because of its great range and color possibilities. The technique [Pete used] was wax resist; first coated with glaze then covered with liquid wax emulsion. After the wax set, the object was decorated by incising through the wax, then filling the lines with a contrasting glaze color. In this case I believe it was red iron oxide or black under-glaze, since it imparted an iron rich color to the lower parts of the Bull retaining a speckled olive-green in the upper part of the object.”

This is a stunning work; the sculpting is powerful and muscular. Indeed the bull seems pent and ready to charge.  The exquisite surface is an indescribable mix of drawn line and fired texture (see the close-ups). Its style is early decorative 1950’s, a perfect fit with beatnik coffee shops then and in mid-century modern collections and interiors today.

Voulkos made other bull-themed art and this testosterone driven creature appears in the drawing on his earliest pots. When he was appointed Professor of Ceramics at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1954 Voulkos made several bullfight themed plates, influenced by Picasso’s exploration of the same subject in his Vallauris ceramics. A striking example is in the Marer Collection at Scripps College, a glaze painted stoneware plate by Voulkos entitled Bullfight, 1957.

However, the title suggests a larger metaphor. The notion of Voulkos as the bull in a china shop could hardly be more appropriate. Voulkos rampaged through 1950’s and 1960’s ceramics, breaking and reassembling pots, pushing and cutting holes through vessels, cutting rims off plates and reattaching them, savaging surfaces with a knife. This angered the old guard who saw him as a kind of grim reaper, killing the ceramic tradition when in fact he was the agent of its rebirth. As Cocteau said to Picasso of his clay doves “you wring their necks to give them life.” Voulkos ignored his detractors and his stampede through the traditions of ceramics continued and by the 1970’s he had changed the expectations for pottery as art in America, no mean achievement. Bull could hardly be a greater trophy of this artist’s unstoppable spirit.  

NOTE:  The auctions in November will include one of Voulkos's major later works, the stack pot Siguirilla, 1999, and the most complex of his great abstract expressionist paintings, Falling Red, 1958.

Mark Del Vecchio