To Buy or Not to Buy: Going Where the Price Guides End

Some collecting areas are fairly well covered, even if no area is ever really complete, and when Depression Glass or Roseville are advertised at an auction, you can expect to see people carrying their books.  At one Depression Glass auction I attended years ago, almost every piece sold within 10% of the latest popular price guide.  Of course, it’s all too easy to be blinded by what someone puts in print, and no book can ever really determine the aesthetic or even market value of an item.  Still, it gives you a beginning.  But what happens when you walk into a shop and come face to face with a piece of pottery or glass that isn’t listed in any guide?  Maybe it has some markings, maybe not, but there’s no one out there telling you what to do.  It’s particularly hard for those still called Newbies, but I’ve known many experienced American Art Pottery collectors who freeze when faced with a piece of European pottery from any but the best known companies.

     If it’s cheap enough, you buy it.  Simple.  When I started attending auctions, anything that was cheap and colorful went home with me.  I bought some pretty bad pieces that way, but I also got some good ones, and a bad bowl for a buck can still mean a profit, as well as an education.  Sometimes I bought reproductions accidentally, and I bought some intentionally just to handle them and learn to tell the difference.  Most of our mistakes eventually became a learning display at the Logan Antique Mall, so they’ve served enough to be worth more than what we paid.  Between seeing more and more at the auctions, the shops, and in the books, and getting to own some of them for a while, I began to see the difference between colorful and garish, between neat and well-made, between funky and junky.  It helped to have Ginny saying, “You bought what?  For how much?” from time to time.  If you want to learn to see what you’re looking at, marry an artist.

     The issues don’t change as the items get more expensive, but the risks certainly increase.  We all have that level where mistakes affect the blood pressure as well as the bank account.  There may be people who think that the more you pay, the more it’s worth, but I think more of us want the bang for the buck ratio to be as good as it can get.  There will always be ups and downs in the market, some slow, some radical one way or the other, often up like a rocket then down like a rock.  The year before I did shows on Long Island, matte white pottery was riding the Martha Stewart wave of approval.  McCoy vases selling for $10-20 in Ohio were pulling in $65-85 in a hurry, but by the year I was there (with no matte white, thankfully), the same vases were gathering dust.  That all makes the market something to be aware of, but the market makes a poor motivation.

     If you want to learn to buy for yourself, and buy things that you’ll be happy with for more than a few weeks even if no one is touting them, the first thing that you have to learn is to see what you’re looking at.  Don’t see the name, not even the style at first.  See the piece itself, for itself.  Pottery and glass are rather tricky creatures.  Sometimes they can blind you with their glitter and flair, make you buy now see later.  More than once I’ve started oohing from the aisle, only to change to groaning as I got closer to a vase that was almost right.  Other times they can become so subtle as to be invisible, sitting so quietly on the shelf that you don’t look twice, but if you do look again, some pieces begin to blossom.

    I love color as much as ever, but I’m convinced that the keys are in line, form, and proportion.  Like any element of design and execution, those can be simple and elegant, or they can be complex, even bizarre.  The question is do they work.  Once you get used to asking the question, the basic answer will probably come fairly quickly, one look or two.  If the answer is no, it doesn’t come together well, then you can put the piece down and move on.  Given time (if you aren’t trying to get through three mega malls in one afternoon), try to decide why the piece doesn’t work for you.  As with anything, we learn through the negatives as much as through the positives.  Consider if it’s the piece that doesn’t work, or is it simply that it doesn’t work for you.  Both are good reasons to put the piece back, but the answers will help you later when the questions are harder, maybe when the money is tighter.

     What doesn’t work in the piece itself is a broader matter, often a matter of execution.  It may simply be that you liked the vase at first because it had butterflies, but closer inspection showed that the lines were sloppy, colors muddy, maybe the wings out of shape.  Or maybe it’s the form of the piece itself that’s off, a little too squatty, neck out of balance with the body.  That’s usually one of the differences between the art pieces and the knock-offs.  Imitations don’t take time to work out the details, just the look.  Yeah, the devil’s in the details, but you want to buy a piece where someone cared enough to get those details right, and the difference in the details is the difference between packing the piece in the attic next year or realizing you like it better now than when you first bought it.

     Several years ago, I bought a piece of acid cut-back glass with a dragonfly design.  It was a fairly simple piece of clear glass with green and brown coloring fired on to imitate ancient bronze.  I bought it to resell, but the mark proved impossible to read, and an attribution took time.  Knowing that the attribution could influence the market value, I held onto the vase, kept it on the mantel where Ginny and I could look at it.  From time to time one of us took it down to look at the mark again, but we kept finding ourselves looking at the vase itself.  We eventually realized that handling or looking at the vase made us feel better, more at peace, even if it was too far away to see the decoration clearly.  It’s the proportions. Curve, height, width, diameter, everything is “right”.  The vase isn’t for sale now.  Okay, it would be for sale at the right price, but how much do you pay for peace?

     Such simple pieces can be the hardest to buy.  Sure, you love the piece, but how can something that simple be worth that much?  In this case, you buy the impression, not the complexity.  That’s at the heart of most Arts and Crafts pottery, a simplicity of line that pleases deeply.  If you walk away and come back a few minutes later, it pleases you more, not less.  That’s why I love to attend auction previews that are at least a day before the auction.  A lot of pieces delight me at the preview, but some of them will just be okay by the next day.  If you’re in a shop, try walking away from the piece and coming back, even if it’s only a few booths away, so you won’t forget and no one else has a chance to snatch it.  At the very least, after you’ve given it a good look, put the piece back where it was and look at the rest of the booth or room. Turn your back on it, and see what happens.  

     With the more complex pieces, such as the Boch Freres enamelware vase sitting directly above the computer, you can easily get carried away by the amount of work that’s visible.  At least 3/4 of the vase is covered by decoration, and there are at least four colors involved.  It’s quite an eye-catcher.  More importantly, it can hold your eye because the artist had skill and time.  The curves in the decoration go with the curve of the vase.  The colors include some odd combinations, but the hues and balances make them work well.  Perhaps the best sign is that I can’t decide what I like best.  My eye doesn’t stay in one place, roving all around the vase, but sticking to the vase.

     Nostalgia is certainly a good reason to buy, sometimes even if the piece itself has no great aesthetic appeal, but the past offers an even better reason for buying.  While a topple to the floor could turn treasure to dust rather quickly, glass and pottery have a sense of time about them that we don’t find often, less often today than ever.  Much of our day is about speed.  Now isn’t soon enough.  But we have vases that stretch across generations and across borders, altering our sense of time and space.  They aren’t eternal, but the help us imagine a bridge between then, and now, and then.  Our work day may be measured in the seconds we have to complete each task, but at home time is a matter of generations and eras.

     Art Nouveau lives on our shelf, spending time peacefully with Art Deco, even Pop Art.  Sometimes we put a vase in the wrong place and get clashing colors, but Japanese, Belgian, German, and American pieces display a century of contrasting lines with nary a war.  Not once has one vase knocked another off the shelf.  I suppose similar philosophical musings could be drawn from the most innocuous work, but the odds are lower because those pieces don’t pull you into their world the way better pieces can, the pieces strong enough to make you stop a while, look a while, and think a while.

     Not everyone gets the kick or the serenity that art can bring.  In particular, some people are obsessed with the buying and owning and don’t seem to notice the pieces themselves.  Not long ago, I attended a series of auctions from the estate of a man who became wealthy fairly young and bought obsessively for about 40 years.  He managed to fill a warehouse and several houses with acquisitions, mostly packed away. He had glass, pottery, paintings, furniture, an amazing range.  He also didn’t seem to have developed an eye at all.  Roseville pieces numbered in the hundreds, but they were almost all from the middle years, the blah days.  When he started buying, Roseville and many other American art pottery pieces were rather cheap, but he had very few pieces of note.

     Most collectors start buying what they like and what they can afford.  As tastes and economics change, they sell off some items, add others, altering, focusing, maybe refining, the collection.  This guy had the cash to buy what he loved most, but that didn’t seem to figure into it.  He bought and kept, bought and kept.  From talking with people who had sold to him often over the years, it sounded like he gained nothing, not even real satisfaction in the purchase, because all that mattered was what he could buy next.  That’s a sad and silly life.

     We live in a culture that’s long been hung up on ownership, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that we don’t own the finer pieces.  They have something of a life of their own, and we share time with them, more companionship than ownership.  We enjoy time spent in their company, looking at them.  Some pieces even have a line or surface that makes holding them a special experience.  We treasure the companions that last through the years, and maybe that’s one way to think about the pieces you might take home.   

     Buy the pieces that will give you long term pleasure, which I’ll admit is a very difficult guess to make.  Imagine seeing that piece of pottery or glass every day for a year.  Then, you’ve had a rather rough day, and you’re starting to sag a bit.  As you walk into the room, you see this piece.  Does it make you feel better?  Studies show that pets can lower our blood pressure (even if they also raise it from time to time) and improve both the quality and length of life.  I believe that any form of art can have the same power, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t hope for pieces that will do that for you.  If nothing else, you can get your exercise by dusting your collection, at least for those of you who dust.  We’ve reached the point that we tell people we collect dust, and the glass and pottery are just there to display our dust collection.  It may be hard to tell one dust mote from another, but at least they’re cheap.