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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.

Gramann Römhild Glazes & Notes

Although Gramann items remain under the radar among collectors of East and West German pottery, as well as the broader category of mid century modern, the company was one of the first to start producing volcanic glazes and created the widest range of volcanic glazes of any West or East German company, making it clear that Otto Natzler wasn’t the only one in the region experimenting with such glazes. The work continued when Natzler left Austria, and it surged forward after and despite the political and physical ravages of World War II.

Ruscha and other companies began using some volcanic aspects in their glazes around 1964, and Otto Gerharz developed some powerful volcanic items soon after he started his own studio, but Gramann/Römhild was producing a volcanic glazes by 1956.  (This information is pieced together from references in 50er Jarhe Keramik by Horst Makus, 1998.  Items are pictured on page 70 with information given on page 101.)  To put the work in context with other decors, Ruscha introduced “Milano” in 1954 and “Marakko” in 1956, representing the popular hand-applied Deco Echo designs that dominated styles until the early 1960s.

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As with Natzler glazes, the Gramann works can be partly categorized by the size of the craters and by their nature, such as rough or smooth.  Some Gramann craters are so fine as to hardly appear volcanic at all, creating a sand-like surface.  The most common is a slightly larger, though fine, crater with craters varying somewhat in size from the top to the bottom.  These were most often done with the craters left open and a semi-matte glaze, but some

Gramann also produced items with larger craters, typically with smooth edges, and some Gramann items have a “veining” within the craters that adds an intriguing sense of motion to the glaze.

have a clear top glaze that seals the craters and creates a higher gloss.  The most common appears to be a light blue glaze followed by a purple and white combination.

The Gramann/Römhild company was somewhere in between being a true “studio” pottery and a commercial pottery. They were big enough to produce a large number of items (though many combinations are uncommon), but they were small enough that most of their items were hand thrown. This may be why most items are also relatively small, in the 6″ range with larger items harder to find. Most forms were simple and clean in design, ranging from elegant to bland….simplicity being rather hard to do well.

Gramann typically used red clays and marked items with a T over R, but the mark is often rather sloppy with the T too often looking like an I. By far, most items were marked, but unmarked Gramann items are known.

Like many of the German companies, there can be some confusion about
the name and whether the family name (Gramann) or location name (Römhild) is most appropriate. I tend to use Gramann because it’s more specific, but the company has at times been Töpferei Römhild, Töpferhof Römhild, and possibly Töpferhof Gramann…..among others.

The Cat with a Bucket List

Triscuit with Scheurich vase

When I heard the scramble in the dining room, I recognized it as a mouse attack and figured Lance was at it again, trying to play keep away with his mouse, but it turned out to be Triscuit with a bit of mouse leg and tail sticking out of his mouth. Despite problems with diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease (two problems whose standard treatments conflict with one another), Triscuit seemed the happiest and healthiest he’d been in a year or more. Only later did we figure out that our cat had a bucket list.

Item One: Catch a mouse. Check.

Nothing about this cat should have been surprising if we thought about it. There had always been the sense of something beyond coincidence from the moment we met, the moment a kitten made me wonder about things like synchronicity, destiny and reincarnation.

We were going to visit some friends late one evening when this tawny fluffball rushed across the street bounding side to side the way young animals do when especially excited. His body language seemed to shout, “Where you been? I’ve been waiting for ages.” It was like meeting an old friend after years apart. Maybe we weren’t imagining it.

Ginny reached down to pet him and discovered that his tail had gotten in the way of some unhappy bowels. “Eww.” The kitten who would become Triscuit licked himself once, looked up with his tongue out and clearly echoed the sentiment. I borrowed papertowels from our friends to take care of the unfortunate tail, and we went inside figuring that in this residential neighborhood the kitten’s home was not far away.

When we came out a few hours later, around midnight, there was a chill in the air and a kitten on the stoop. That suggested a homeless cat. It should have also told us just how patient, more precisely how stubborn, this creature could be. I picked him up, and he quickly moved up to my shoulder where he began kneading against my head, nursing on my hair, and purring in my ear. The matter was settled.

The next day, our vet told us we’d been conned. That nursing on hair routine is something that Siamese breeds tend to do. Triscuit soon proved her right, and as a kitten he took almost every opportunity to snuggle close to an ear, knead and purr. Since those claws could sometimes slip through my hair, and since this stubborn cat could keep this up for a long time, I pretty much broke him of the habit with me, and he concentrated on Ginny. Silly me.

Item Two: Spend Some Quality Time With the Folks

Triscuit

During the two months before he died, I would have said Triscuit was feeling better than he had at any time in the last two years. When he was on the back of the couch where he could get petted by anyone passing, each stroke resulted in a broad stretch of a paw. When he was lying on the floor, he would fairly often do a full-body stretch, smooth and easily, then role onto his back with his front paws tucked against his chest in the position we called “baby seal” (also known as,”Isn’t someone going to rub my belly?”). He even played a bit with a string once or twice, which had become quite rare.

His frequent visits when I was at the computer became almost constant. He would sit beside the monitor fairly quietly until he just had to get petted. Then, he would shove his head under my hand, typing be damned, and usually manage to step on the keyboard. He was especially good at deleting e-mails, and he sometimes made the screen change in ways I’ve never duplicated.

Anytime I was horizontal, bed or couch, he was there, starting on my chest, kneading against my neck, always managing to pull down any cloth I used to protect myself from those refined points of his. Soon, he would move to a spot on the pillow beside my head and begin to knead there while purring in my ear just as he had as a kitten. I didn’t know how short our time was, but I wasn’t going to try breaking him of the habit again. Whatever else I was supposed to do, except feed the cats, could wait.

This sweet oasis made no sense medically. He wasn’t eating right, but that wasn’t really a new thing. We went through that for various reasons every few weeks. Sure, we were going to have to go in for some tests soon just for the usual checks, but he was clearly happy most of the time, so there was no sense of urgency. We had time to sort out this new eating pattern.

If we had taken him in a few weeks earlier, the treatments might have bought us a little extra time, but there would surely have been some discomforts to go with it. We would have gained time at the expense of quality. Worse than that, I think we would have been rejecting a gift as well as keeping Triscuit from finishing his list.

Item two. Check.

Item Three: Talk with Glyph About His New Responsibilities.

Triscuit and Glyph

Perhaps the oddest parts in all this have been the changes in Glyph’s behavior, changes that could almost convince me that Triscuit had talked things over with the youngest family member to get him ready. In the weeks since Triscuit died, Glyph has taken on, with his own variations, a number of Triscuit’s habits. I can almost imagine the conversation.

“Listen, kid, you’re going to have some extra responsibilities around here soon. This guy takes a lot of watching. First, when he takes a shower, you’ve got to be there.”

“Why?”

“I haven’t a clue, but we’ve been doing it for years. Sergeant Major taught me, and I’m passing it along. With that much water, a lot of things could go wrong. Just be careful when he gets out. He drips.”

“Next, there’s the kitchen. When you hear the refrigerator open or plates clink, you’ve got a minute to be there rubbing his ankles.”

“But I don’t like people food. Well, except tuna.”

“Doesn’t matter. This one’s just to keep him paying attention. Also, don’t do it every time. It’s good to keep him confused. I’ve noticed you’ve got a talent for that.”

“The last thing is that computer. Don’t let him spend too much time staring at it without some distraction. Jump up on the desk beside the monitor, and make him pay attention to you. Every now and then, step on the keyboard and see what happens. Drives him nuts if you hit the right key, especially delete. Oh, and whenever you can, purr.”

Item Three: Check.

Item Four: Confound the Experts

Triscuit, eyes close up

Triscuit was never simple. He ate the specialized foods for different problems when that’s the food we put in his bowl, but he seemed to get whatever the food was supposed to prevent. When the diabetes and a kidney infection were first diagnosed, the numbers said he wouldn’t make it past a few days, but it took years for the numbers to catch him.

In those last two weeks, we had vets in three states working on the problem. For better or worse, the test numbers never seemed to go in the direction expected, and his physical appearance usually contradicted the tests. Everyone was sure there was some underlying problem, a lymphoma that the tests didn’t show, something that kept skewing expectations, but no one could figure out what or where, certainly not why it caused the peculiarities.

Item four: Check.

Item Five: Say Goodbye

At one point in his treatment, it looked like Triscuit had a chance. Test results looked better, and he was more aware of his surroundings, but there was always that underlying issue that the tests couldn’t seem to find, probably lymphoma. However, when we went to see him that Thursday afternoon, we knew we were getting close to the decision we didn’t want to make, maybe a day or two.

Glyph waving

He was good enough to go off the IV for a while so he could curl on Ginny’s lap, nestling his head near, then on, her arm just enough to show that he knew we were there, knew and was happy about it. I’m not sure who was consoling whom. He was also starting to show discomfort, not from the medical treatment but from the sickness itself. Before we left, we switched orders to put him on the “do not resuscitate” list. It was the only fair way if something happened, but we expected a declining point when we would have to intervene.

We had only been home a few hours when the call came. “Triscuit just stopped breathing.” Somehow, the expected still comes as a surprise. You hear stories about people holding on for some special event and then going quickly afterwards. Those who study the statistics claim it isn’t true, but I’m not convinced. I really think that our visit was his release. Just because he couldn’t speak our language doesn’t mean he couldn’t say goodbye.

Item five: Check. I guess his list was complete even if ours still had years of things we had hoped to check off with him.

Most of life still puzzles me, so I’m not ready to make many claims about what happens next, who we may meet, when, or where. I like to think we’ll have more time. He might look completely different, or maybe, just maybe, a tiny, tawny ball of fluff will come bounding up saying, “Where you been? I’ve been waiting for ages.”

Attending Auctions: Guide for Beginners

(I just transferred this essay from a different page and will add photos soon.)
Fortunately, auctions bear little resemblance to what shows up on sitcoms. A stray sneeze won’t mean going home with some monstrous item no rational person would buy. However, there are still quite a few things an auction-goer should know to get the most for their money and the most fun with the least agony.  To start with, it’s a whole world that searching and bidding on eBay just can’t touch for fun and fascination, including the people-watching opportunities.

For antiques/collectibles, there are two primary types of live (non-internet) auctions: on-site auctions where the items are sold on the property of the owner, and auction house sales where items from one or more sellers are gathered into one place (either the auction house itself or a rented space). Both types can very radically in terms of quality and technique, and which is more common varies with location and season.

We started in this game back in southeastern Ohio, and the outdoor, on-site auctions are the most common, at least from May to October. The average on-site auction includes everything from antiques to contemporary furniture and even towels, sheets, and general household items. What will sneak through at a bargain price and what will sell for more than it’s currently priced at K-Mart is unpredictable, which is one reason auction-goers need to be more prepared than Boy Scouts.

Your day at the auction starts several days before the auction, particularly with finding out what auctions are being held, when, and where. Even that varies in different parts of the country. There will usually be ads in the local newspaper, but what day those typically appear varies. In Columbus, Ohio, most listings show up in the Sunday Dispatch, but I’ve known places where Wednesday or Thursday was the prime listing day. However, the cost of newspaper advertising, even in the classifieds, has skyrocketed causing many auctioneers to limit the size of newspaper ads or eliminate them all together.

For auctions with a fair amount of antiques, the specialty newspapers or sites can be a major advantage.  Those include Antique Trader, Antique Week and The Maine Antiques Digest.  Ads in these sources will usually include more information and pictures than what you find in the newspaper. They may also include a website, and for the smart auctioneers that site will include many more pictures.  Of course, many auctioneers now have their own sites, and many list on AuctionZip.  You might also check online bidding sites such as Live Auctioneers and Proxibid.  Even if you don’t want to bid online, you might find auctions listed there close enough to attend in person, and you can get a slight preview.  Just keep in mind that the online listings rarely have enough photos, and descriptions are typically hurriedly written and may sacrifice detail and accuracy.

That much sounds easy. Check the newspapers and whatever specialty paper covers your area. Any literate person should be set, but reading these ads requires a fine eye and experience. In some cases, ads are written up based on limited information, which can make them unintentionally misleading. Plus, part of the auctioneer’s job is getting people to attend their auction rather than someone else’s. That means writing the ad to sound as attractive as possible, and the text can get as creative as the real estate ads where cozy means tiny. When in doubt, call the auctioneer for more details. Ten minutes on the phone can save an hour drive.

For most auctions, you can start looking at items at least one or two hours before the auction starts. Auction houses often have a preview the day before the auction. The more time you have to look at things, the better. Take a notebook/pen, a decent, small magnifying glass, and a digital camera.

The first time through, you’re mostly just trying to see what’s there and what stands out. What the auctioneer considers the best items will probably be displayed separately, which is nice but potentially deceiving. Don’t assume that these items will always sell high, and don’t assume that all the good pieces are displayed. One of my best buys was a dust-covered, cobweb-filled Venini vase hiding in a boxlot under a table.

On the first time around, write down what objects interest you plus any significant notes about damage, what table it’s on, etc. For some of the interesting pieces, take a picture. If this is a preview the day before, you now have a chance to do some good research when you get home. If the auction is that day, you have a photo record to help learn. Jot down what the pieces sell for and what the auctioneer says about them. (The average auctioneer is as honest as the average person, which is pretty good, but no auctioneer is always right.)

Special Notes on Previewing Auctions
At almost every auction, something gets damaged by the preview crowd. Sometimes it can’t really be helped, but take time not only to look at the items but to respect them as well.

Handles are mighty tempting, but don’t use them. Every now and then, the flaw you hadn’t seen yet is in that handle, and you may just find yourself holding a handle while the body falls to the floor. Put down your notebook, camera, and everything else so you can pick up each item with both hands. Once you put it back in place you can write your notes.

Also, don’t move items around without permission. Maybe there’s no special reason why that item is on that table, but maybe there is. With box lots, items are often grouped by intent. Casually dropping an item from one box to another, or pocketing what seems unimportant, not only undoes someone’s effort, it also unfairly hinders other bidders who had already looked at the box and planned to bid.

Just follow basic courtesies, and you’ll be fine.

I usually keep a few of the basic research books in the car, plus a few extra based on the auction description. If there’s time, do a little book-searching after your first look through the offerings. After that, go look again. The second time through, you’ll notice some different items and probably notice some damage that you missed before.

One of the great advantages of previews the day before is the chance to see how well an item holds up over time. Even if you only have fifteen minutes or so in between looks, you’ll find that some items just don’t give quite the same tingle the second time around. However, some of the more subtle items will grow on you.

As you go along, it’s not a bad idea to guess what items will sell for so you can compare your guesses with reality and then learn why when you guess wrong. However, don’t let your guesses keep you from taking a close look at everything. Just because you know an item is worth far more than you can afford doesn’t mean that it will actually sell high. From time to time a great piece slips through, even if it’s a well-known collectible.

However, one major rule is never bid on an item you haven’t looked at. Maybe nobody is bidding because they don’t know what a great piece it is, or maybe nobody is bidding because they’ve all found the crack in the back. We all break that rule now and then, and we all regret it almost every time. Almost. In so many ways, it’s the slight difference between almost and always that keeps many of us going back, hoping this is the time that almost falls our way.

Before you settle in for the auction, write down the items you plan to bid on and what your top bid will be. If you have a total budget for the auction, it’s good to put that in writing as well. Auctions can get rather emotional, and it’s all too easy to get carried away. Setting written limits ahead of time will limit that problem.

Otherwise, you could end up like my friend who went to an auction bound and determined to buy a rare crock they had listed. He won it all right, and he was shaking a bit as he carried it out, especially after his wife pointed out that he had paid $1600 for it.

To show how strange this game is, he had a chance to sell it for a good profit within a few weeks (and turned it down). On the other hand, he also learned that a few weeks before he bought it, it had sold unidentified and unadvertised at a local auction for $50.

Written limits can also help avoid overly competitive bidding. From time to time, there will be someone at an auction who seems to bid on everything you want, and win far too often. Suddenly, buying an good item at a good price isn’t nearly as important as beating that dirty, evil person who’s stealing all your goodies.

Eventually, an item comes up that you are absolutely determined to win, and you bid several times more than intended. I can remember the first time it happened to us, and we went home with a lovely paperweight vase for about $70. We eventually found it pictured in a current import catalog.

The retail value was maybe $15, and the value in any respectable antique shop was $0. It ended up in the reproductions and frauds display of the antique mall. Of course, I recognize them very quickly when they turn up in shops or online, but it was an expensive part of our education, especially relative to our budget.

Specifics About Outdoor/Onsite Auctions

You’ll find some outdoor auctions that are almost fancy with numerous high quality items, a tent, and chairs. On the other end of the scale are the ones where you park in a field and hope no cows have been present lately. I used to believe that small, middle-of-nowhere auctions offered the best bargains, but that’s not true, at least not consistently. There are bargains at almost every auction. You just have to recognize it an decide whether or not it’s something you want.

For outdoor auctions, be weather savvy. Know whether or not you can wear those nice shoes or need to take boots and a change of socks. Don’t wonder about an umbrella, just keep one in the car all the time. Aside from unexpected showers, sometimes an umbrella is a great source of shade.

At some auctions, you have to crowd around the tables while the auction goes on, and sitting down may mean missing the one item you were waiting for. Getting a spot close to the table means seeing what’s coming up, but it can be rather claustrophobic. If the fringe of the crowd is still close enough to see what’s being sold, it can at least mean the freedom to move around.

For many outdoor auctions, items will all run through a single spot, and you can have a seat just like you were indoors, except you will probably have to bring your own seat. Toss a lawn chair in the back when you start out just in case. This is yet another reason to arrive early since you want a good spot and may need to make an extra trip to the car.

At the Auction House
(This material is based on attending local or regional auction houses, not upper-niche places such as Sotheby’s.)

When I started attending auctions, I avoided auction houses and areas with numerous antique shops on the theory that items would sell higher at such places. It was several years before I got around to testing my theory, and that means I missed a great education and at least a few hundred bargains. It also means that there was more of a limit to my mistakes while I learned the difference between gaudy and valuable.

Auction houses may sell both antiques and contemporary or household items, but they usually separate the items into different auctions. That means the antique auctions have many more items of interest, often more valuable than you find at on-site auctions. While that increases the competition, it also increases the odds that something will slip through at a bargain.

While auction houses are generally more comfortable than standing around outdoors in all types of weather, there are certain problems. Lighting is often fine for general viewing but insufficient for trying to spot hairlines. Consider carrying a keychain flashlight, or ask permission to carry the item to better lighting.

For items in lit showcases, this may not appear to be a problem, but even good lighting may create glare or reflections. Take your time to check the angles. In carpentry, the saying is measure twice, cut once. In antiques, it’s more like check twice, then check twice more, and buy once.

Since it’s a good idea to move around from time to time at long auctions, a seat on the aisle will make life easier. Some auction houses allow you to reserve seats, but first come, first served is more common. Mark your territory when you arrive.

A packing box is a recognized seat-saver, as is a coat. A newspaper may be a good thing for boring stretches, but it’s not a good seat-saver simply because they also get left behind when people depart. Just don’t leave anything worth stealing.

At times, an auction house will have more items than can reasonably be sold in a single session. In those cases, the auction usually runs until the crowd thins out and bids drop so low that it’s no longer profitable to keep the session going. There can be some great bargains near the end of any auction (and often the beginning), and sometimes that one item you were waiting for is just about to come up when the auctioneer calls an end to the day. Crap.

Fortunately, most auctioneers are willing to take requests within limits. Unless you just got a call that your wife is in labor, don’t make a request in the first hour or two of the auction. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but don’t do it unless you really need to leave and really want the item. Also, don’t go up with a list of a dozen items that you want up, and up right now.

Such requests should go to one of the people handling the objects and should be done as politely and unobtrusively as possible. If the auctioneer hasn’t said anything about requests, make sure that it’s an accepted practice there. There are some auctioneers who put any requests at the end of the line. Auctioneers can be just as testy as the rest of us from time to time.

In addition to asking too early, be sure not to wait too late. Yes, bids tend to go down late in an auction, and maybe that one person who was going to run you up will be gone in another five minutes. Given how quirky people can be, it’s also possible that somebody else has been waiting and has reached the point that they will bid even higher just to justify waiting so long.

For All Types of Auctions

Most auctions run on a number system for bidding. There will be a registration desk (usually the same as where you pay), and they will almost certainly want to see your driver’s license for identification. You then get a number, usually written on a card about 4 x 8.

When you win a bid, the auctioneer will want to know your number. It’s easiest to bid by raising the card, but at the very least you should have the card ready. It’s a bit annoying for everyone when somebody bids first and then has to go searching for a misplaced card.

Keep track of your bidding, what the item was and how much you paid. The card your bidding number is on probably has plenty of room for that information. I’ve seen people who just bid and bid, then walk up to the clerk and pay whatever the clerk says.

Guess what, people make mistakes. Sometimes your notes are wrong, but other times the information got skewed somewhere between the clerk working with the auctioneer and the clerk running the register. Something may be on your number that you didn’t bid on, or they may not have you as the winner when you should. Lot’s of things can go wrong.

There are lots of ways to bid, some good, some bad, and some just stupid. The just stupid includes putting your hand up and simply keeping it there. Don’t think you’re going to intimidate other bidders and get them to back out. You’re just announcing to everybody that you’re willing to keep paying, and that you’re an easy mark. If you do it more than once, there’s a good chance that somebody will keep bidding purely for the sake of making you pay more.

If possible be in good line of sight for the auctioneer or one of the staff watching bids. Raise your bid card high enough to be noticed and listen for an acknowledgment that they’ve taken your bid, usually marked by a raise in asking price and a nod in your direction. Once they’ve spotted you, a clear nod, lift of the bid card or shake of the head should be enough. Just don’t try to be so refined and subtle that no one notices you.

The auctioneer will name a starting point for each item, but don’t raise your card just yet. With the best auctioneers, that starting point may be where the bidding ends, at least with auctioneers that know the market, but don’t be in a hurry. Except on very rare ocassions, no one is going to bid at the starting price. The auctioneer will come down until somebody can’t resist, and the game is on.

Don’t expect every item to start at a buck, either. When the crowd is slow to start the bidding (and each auction crowd has a different personality), the day gets long, and all but the most patient auctioneers get testy, especially if it’s a bad weather day. As a newbie, it’s probably best to let somebody else start the bids, but as you gain experience, be willing to jump in. It keeps you on the auctioneer’s good side, which is a very good place to be.

Be prepared for a long, long day. Some auctioneers are entertaining, some deadly dull, but with almost any auction there will be stretches where nothing you care about comes up. A newspaper or book isn’t a bad idea if you have a place to sit, but don’t get so distracted that you miss a bargain.

In any case, make sure to move around from time to time. Take another look at items if they’re still available for viewing, or just wander around. Sitting in one place is amazingly tiring, not to mention boring. Almost all auctions have food and drink available, some good, some bad, with prices usually on the high side. It’s good to support small business, but it’s also a good idea to take along some snacks of your own and especially plenty of water. Just be sure to pick a good time to go to the bathroom rather than waiting until it’s irresistible and comes just as they are about to sell your favorite item.

Terms and Conditions to Be Aware Of

Some auctioneers are easy to understand, but for others you may only catch a word every now and then so you really have to learn to listen and what to listen for.

Most items at an auction are sold individually, but there are some variations. An auctioneer may announce that a lot is selling for “one price” or “choice” or “one with the privilege,” or “one times the money.”

One price means that everything in that group is selling for whatever price is bid. For example, if there are 6 tumblers on the table selling for one price, then that’s a single lot. If someone wins with a bid of $25, then they get all 6 for $25.
Choice, or “one with the privilege” means that the winning bidder can take however many of the items they want from that group. If they win with a bid of $25, they can take 1 tumbler for $25, or 2 for $50, up to all 6 for $150.

Times the money means that the winning bidder must take all the items multiplied by the winning bid. If you win with that same $25 bid, you now have all 6 tumblers for $125, no choices. Obviously, there’s room for some serious mistakes if you think the lot is selling for one money or choice when the auctioneer said “times the money” or something similar.

Most auctioneers are aware that “shit happens”. If you screw up your bidding, tell them immediately. If it happens once, the auctioneer will probably grumble a little, but politely, and resell the lot. It’s not a good idea to make that mistake more than once at an auction.

You should also be aware of the payment terms. Auctioneers work on a commission, so having to pay a percentage to a credit card company eats directly into profit. That means some places go strictly with cash or check (and may have special requirements for out-of-state checks).

The terms will often say there’s a buyer’s premium, and it can vary in several ways. This fee began as a way to lure consignments. By passing part of the commission to the buyer, auctioneers could offer better terms to sellers. That’s the theory at least. It began with the ritzy auction houses and has trickled down to many others. The percentage keeps going up and may now range from 5-20% at regional auction houses.

Places such as Sotheby’s and Christies keep raising the price, but most of the local auctioneers have realized that there are limits to what people can or will pay, When the premium is high enough to force people to hold bids down, it becomes counterproductive.

Fairly often, at least in the midwest, you’ll see something like 3% or 13% premium with a 3% discount for cash or check. That three percent is really the credit card fee they’re covering. Technically, that isn’t supposed to get passed on the the credit card user, so they can’t say there’s a fee for using a credit card. By calling it a discount, they manage to sidestep the problem. For most local auctioneers, it’s the only way they can afford to take credit cards.

Sales tax is going to be a variable depending on state laws, but in most places, there’s no tax when items are sold on-site. When items are moved to an auction house or a hall rented for the auction, sales tax is usually required. Overall, read the ad carefully and ask whatever questions needed to figure out what your total cost is going to be, and keep that in mind when bidding.

The average auction is a “no reserve” system, meaning that any item put up for bid will actually sell no matter low low the final bid may be. In a reserve auction, there is a minimum price the seller is willing to take. The auctioneer will usually announce such terms either at the beginning of the auction or when an item comes up for sale if the terms are different on that item. Again, it’s mostly a matter of reading the ad and listening to the auctioneer.

In addition to those bidders actually at the auction, some auctioneers allow absentee bidding. This means that someone has previewed the auction or called but doesn’t attend the actual auction. Instead, they leave behind an official bid and let the auctioneer or an employee of the auction house do the bidding. Most auctioneers prefer to start the bidding with the crowd and then play out the absentee bid. If there are multiple absentee bids on an item, the auctioneer may start the bidding at the point that eliminates the lower bids. (If three people left bids, one at $15, one at $20, and one at $50, the bidding would start at $25.)

There are also illegal bids such as shill bids or ghost bids that can be used to run prices higher. I’m not going into such bids here because it’s far too easy to misunderstand what’s happening compared to what seems to be happening. When an auctioneer isn’t clear or somebody isn’t paying enough attention, it’s all too easy to mistake legitimate bids such as absentee bids for shill or ghost bids.

No matter how honest an auctioneer may be, you’ll find somebody out there ready to accuse them of all sorts of nefarious activities. Use your judgement and bid to your satisfaction, and let the rest fall where it may, at least for now. Watch and learn, watch and learn some more, and then you can start making judgements.

Yes, there are some auctioneers out there who are more interested in money than in ethics, but remember that every good con game depends on the greed of the mark. It’s tough for an auctioneer to take you for a ride if you aren’t willing to go. Don’t worry, be happy, but keep your eyes open.

Differences in Auctioneers

Not every auction or auctioneer is the same. Big surprise. I was lucky enough early on to attend an auction by Kenny Love, which taught me just how much fun an auction can be. Then ran into a stretch that taught me how boring, dense, and downright unfriendly some auctioneers can be. Each time that happened, I checked the paper for one of Kenny’s auctions. As a second generation auctioneer, he had the patter and rhythm down so well that he could carry on a conversation with a member of the audience while selling an item and never stumble.

Some auctioneers use a patter that is almost unintelligible, but they will usually include stretches of real English. It’s much like meeting someone with a strong, strange accent. At first, it’s hard to understand anything, but eventually your ear adjusts, and everything, or almost everything, becomes clear. There are some auctioneers who are simply unclear. Crowds tend to thin more quickly, and there may be some bargains, but you may lose your mind in the process.

Other auctioneers use standard speech, seemingly no patter or special rhythm at all, but as usual the good ones stand out, and you’ll realize that part of it is the rhythm after all. One such is Sam Schnaidt at Appletree Auction. His son David is good and still has time to surpass his father, but back when we were able to get over to Appletree, Sam could move an auction like no one else I’ve seen.

An average auctioneer sells about 75-100 items an hour, which is fast enough to keep the audience paying attention. I’ve known some that slow to about 40 items an hour, which feels as fast as walking on the freeway. You’re ready to scream within the first hour, if you’re still awake. Meanwhile, I’ve known both Sam and David to run at an average of 140-175 items an hour, and I’ve clocked Sam as high as 240. Those attending Appletree for the first time tend to have trouble following the proceedings, but once you get used to the system, it’s beautiful to watch.

It will take you some time to sort out the quality and styles of the auctioneers in your area, but be patient with them and yourself. If your first experience is a disaster, don’t be discouraged. Just do some disaster planning, and give it another shot. Eventually, you’ll have the pleasure of snickering at the person who just paid $45 for an item you saw at K-Mart for $17.50. Just remember that not so long ago, you were that person.

Unexpected Benefits

We started attending auctions just because we could find neat things at great prices, but there are benefits beyond filling our shelves. Auctions are a liberal arts education unlike anything a college can offer. You learn history, sociology, psychology, business, communications, and a great deal more.

Your first auction is likely to still be a confusing, somewhat intimidating experience, but go have some fun anyway. Set yourself a fairly low bidding limit for the first few auctions, and do a lot of watching and listening (and double-checking). Buy what you like, not just what seems to be going cheap. Expect to make some mistakes along the way, but you’ll also get to tell friends about your bid success and about the ones that got away.

I hope you enjoyed the essay/blog. To check out more of the full site, follow the internet-brick road to the Home Page.

Art Therapy For an Entire Country

Like many people, I first got hooked on West German pottery more like a magpie than a real collector, eyes caught by the bright colors.  Eventually, I got to know the forms and a wider variety of glazes, becoming amazed by the range and depth, the variety surpassing any other art pottery field.  Still, what came to impress me most of all was the history, the art as social commentary, flourishing under conditions that might well have crushed the creative spirit or, at the very least, turned it onto a dark, depressing path.  Instead, the result was a 30 year period of unmatched creativity in the art pottery industry, often with a strong sense of whimsy and an insistence on a positive outlook, art as therapy on a massive scale.

ES Keramik Shape 883

The land and the people had already been ravaged by WWI, leaving scars and holes both physical and emotional, as well as literal and metaphorical.  The world changed, and artists, already re-visualizing the world before the war, insisted that art must change.  Things could not, should not be viewed or thought of in the same, insufficient way.  By 1917, Marcel Duchamp had “told” his visual pun with a urinal, and non-representational movements, Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, and others grew stronger, sometimes darker, more challenging, and more aggressive.

But the postwar power vacuum and economic problems helped Hitler and the Nazi party rise.  They were certainly darker and more aggressive, and they didn’t like challenging art.  Repression began early, and in many respects, Germany itself was the first country conquered by the Nazis.  By the time WWII ended, the art world in Germany, like much of the culture and people, had endured over two decades of increasing repression, topped off by the destruction brought on by the Nazi aggression.

Ruscha Jug, Milano Decoration

By 1947, Picasso was working with ceramics in France, while in Italy mid century modern designs were appearing in both pottery and glass, but German designers, almost as if the country’s central location acted as a magnet, pulled inspiration from all around, generating a breadth and depth almost beyond imagining.  Much of the early post-war pottery looked a lot like the pre-war pottery, which is no surprise, and some of these lines continued through much of the 1950s.  However, once freed, the creative spirit that had been repressed and punished, but not broken, rose and blossomed.

Rosenthal was working with asymmetry and slight exaggeration in their porcelain as early as 1950, but I mark 1954 as the dawning of the golden era of W. German pottery because Ruscha introduced two eventual icons, the 313 shape by Kurt Tschörner and the Milano decor by Cilli Wörsdörfer.  They captured much of what would be the dominant design elements for the 1950s and into the early 60s.

Ruscha Shape 313, original form

The 313 began with a jug-form that was exaggerated into an elegant, whimsical shape with a profile suggesting forward motion and determination, particularly in that lip and neck, like a jaw jutting forth.  Many of the other forms from that era would be based on jugs or pitchers/ewers, a form also common in earlier pottery, but now the shapes became playful, with exaggerated handles, twisted bodies, ballooning bellies, and a general movement from physical utility toward aesthetic motility and utility.  The concept of form follows function was transformed into form is function as designers created turned everyday items into sculpture, making aesthetics part of the household more than ever before.

Ruscha plate, engobe series, “Reiher” decoration

Many of the decors, including Milano/Domino and into the Bodo Mans era at Bay with Paris, Rheims and others, echoed the Art Deco era but also were part of the larger art movement away from traditional representational art toward geometric abstracts.  And the representational motifs (Reiher/heron) tended to show either Oriental influences or were simplified, playful images (Fische/fish, the Keto version of Paris) Some included influence from Cubism and other movements that had roots before the war (Torero from Ruscha).  The stems may have been chopped by Nazi repression, but the roots survived to grow again.

Ruscha Wall Plate, Engobe Series, Paris Decoration

The Ruscha version of “Paris” was something of an exception.  Even though it was also from Hanns Welling, the same designer who created a similar but light and playful “Paris” for Keto, the Ruscha version had an underlying darker commentary.  The three primary elements of the motif are the streetlight, the cat, and the young woman.  Some versions became more suggestive with the addition of a young man, and there’s a less common version that labels one of the buildings in the background as “Hotel” just in case anyone wasn’t sure of the suggestions in less overt versions.

In the early 1960’s designs began moving from the organic, whimsical forms toward more angular looks and sharper edges, as seen in “Tunis” and related designs for Bay by Bodo Mans as early as 1960.  Variations and exaggerations that might prove troublesome when being removed from the mold were minimized or eliminated, making it possible to produce more items faster and cheaper.  At the same time, the amount of hand work in the decoration diminished.  Designs such as “Rheims” and “Paris” by Bay and “Milano/Domino” by Ruscha required skilled hands, and you can see a sloppiness, especially in some of the Bay lines, that may have indicated less-skilled (less expensive) decorators were being used, or pressure was increasing to get more items done.

Carstens, Manila Vase, Later, fewer curves, Less hand work

And the popular “engobe” designs such as “Maske” and “Paris” from Ruscha, and those from Keto and Kiechle required a skilled hand to incise the basic design pattern through the black glaze plus someone to apply the enamel well, with the personalized touches that meant no two items were likely to be the same.  All of this took time and skill, especially a complex design such as “Filigrana” by Adele Bölz, which may have been the last gasp of the incised work. Of course, a good design/form can still create great aesthetic appeal.

Clearly, there was a push to increase production numbers and decrease the number of specially skilled workers.  The push for profit was pushing out the time consuming aesthetics.  Not surprisingly, this is about the time that the classic Ruscha 313 began undergoing design changes, changes that would allow Ruscha to continue the popular form but reduce the cost.  The original design by Kurt Tschörner was an aesthetic joy but a practical problem.  Exaggerated lines and a thin body meant increased loss through items coming out of the mold wrong or just being more fragile all through production and shipping.

Ruscha 313 Redesigned Form

In some respects, the original 313 may have been almost an accident, an aesthetic pleasure but a production problem that a designer more versed in ceramics might never have designed.  (According to Horst Makus in 50er Jahre Keramik, Tschörner’s training at that point was more in glass which shows in the lines that echo Murano glass.)  And Ruscha’s administrators must not have imagined the eventually demand for increased production, or they would never have approved the design.

The first re-design was fairly It’s actually not clear if the 313 form was redesigned once or twice, with a possible early adjustment so minor that it’s still not clear if it’s real or simply variations in production. At any rate, a more radical change was eventually made. This change kept only the suggestion of the original form and became just a slightly modified jug-form.  The area under the handle is very open, the “back” now curved rather than straight, the spout no longer thrust so far forward, the opening much bigger, the body more “upright” and the entire piece thicker. Fortunately, Ruscha produced some particularly fascinating glazes after the switch to Version Three, which is what kept the 313 a big seller then and now.

By comparison, Scheurich’s shape 271 designed by Heinz Siery was a commercial delight.  It used many of the styles of the period, asymmetry, angled mouth, angular handle, but none were particularly distinctive or exaggerated.  It was a shape that could be enjoyed by many, easily recognized, and also easily produced. The shape is still popular with collectors, but the aesthetics lack the power of some of the more daring forms.

Scheurich Wein/Vienna Shape with handle

Another victim of the push for production was the handle itself.  The 1950s and early 60s saw numerous interesting handles and some designs that were absolutely amazing, and amazing that they survived, which likely led to their demise.  Handles that looked great but were hard to produce and likely to break came under the heading of aesthetics that became unprofitable.  Certainly, handles continued to be a significant feature, but the drama was largely gone, replaced mostly by simple ring handles, vestigial nubs, and similar variants. Some worked, some, such as on the larger versions of the Scheurich “Vienna” form, were more of an intrusion than an artistic statement.

Certainly, these were changes crucial to keeping the art pottery industry alive and growing, and the results included marvelous forms and some unbelievable glazes as well as a staggering quantity.  Meanwhile, production also included an enormous amount of kitsch to sell to the growing crowds of tourists.  It also marked a shift from the survival era, when the aesthetics were as much about coping with conditions after the war as they were about economics.  The next stage was about economics first and design second, but the need to fill a hungry market still created, even insisted upon, new shapes and new glazes that kept designers reaching further, pushing boundaries, and coming up with results the Nazis would have never allowed.  Success may well be the best revenge, and the artists in Germany had their revenge in a glorious way that the rest of us can also enjoy for generations.

If you would like to see the West and East German pottery we currently have for sale, you can start at http://www.ginforsodditiques.com/west-german-pottery.bay.carstens.ceramano.html