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Icons, Aesthetics, and Commerce

The phrase commercial art pottery isn’t quite an oxymoron, but the relationship between commerce and art is at best complex and often at odds.  Still, some companies have tried to produce and sell pottery that has aesthetic value beyond the most basic utilitarian purpose.  In most cases, companies have found it difficult or impossible to create art pottery that has long term economic success.

Ruscha shape 313 and Scheurich shape 271 would be two notable exceptions, but they took rather different roads to becoming icons of W. German pottery.

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Shape 313 was designed by Kurt Tschörner, introduced in 1954 and produced (with variations) until Ruscha closed.  Shape 271 was designed by Heinz Siery, introduced in 1959 and produced at least into the 90s.

Although 313 was one of the early, defining shapes in the W. German era, it’s not really accurate to call it a “new” form.  Indeed, all forms are variations on what’s known, what’s been done, but Tschörner took what had been done and introduced further exaggerations and turned a utilitarian shape into sculpture.  Line, form, and proportion were matched to create a form that was at once bold and whimsical, sleek in line but determined and strong with that forward-thrusting “mouth”.

And the form was clearly a success with the early decors of Milano, Domino, and others.  There were, however, just as clearly some conflicts between design and production, which meant conflict between art and commerce.  This is revealed by changes in the form.  There are at least three shape versions of 313, possibly more.  The differences between the first and last versions are clear, with the last version being more upright, less exaggerated, and generally sturdier, thicker in design.

However, there are more subtle design changes that can only be seen with close, side by side comparisons, and it’s not yet clear if there were several gradual changes or if several small changes were made at once before the more radical changes proved necessary.  One of the early changes can be seen in the handle, particularly where the top meets the body.  The earliest production featured a rather thin, elegant handle, but this strategic point was soon thickened.

This suggests that the original design was too fragile and perhaps too included too many problematic angles.  Every pottery item faces several difficult hurdles, starting with simply coming out of the mold cleanly, then enduring time drying, firing, being handled multiple times by cleaners, decorators, and packers.  It appears likely that the very first version had issues at several or all of these points.

(It’s worth noting that some early versions were made with dark red/brown clay.  These tend to be even smaller with finer lines than the usual white/buff clay items.  The same has been true with other Ruscha shape comparisons, so it appears to be a quality of the clay itself.  Why they didn’t use it more often is unknown.)

In a sense, Ruscha 313 was designed for the aesthetics and adapted for economics, caught in the gap between desire and reality, theory and practice,  a victim of its success.  By comparison, Scheurich 271 was designed with an eye to the commercial and other practical aspects from the beginning.

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The form has many of the elements already established as part of the 1950s style, slanted top, angular handle, and waisted body, in this case a convex waist.  However, none of the elements are particularly exaggerated, and the ratios are all whole numbers, pleasing but safe, no challenge to the eye or mind.  The result is distinctive without being different.

That makes it a definitive product for Scheurich.  While some companies seemed to focus on forms, Scheurich focused on glazes.  The “best” Scheurich forms are the ones that act as displays for the glaze.  The form is good and pleasing but doesn’t take the eye away from the glaze.  The average Scheurich form is just that, average.  Many are bland or even poorly proportioned, but shapes are more than anything else….numerous.

Scheurich often did minor variations on a form over the years to produce a mind-boggling number of shapes, sometimes with the same number.  That makes 271 particularly unusual in the Schuerich line because it kept the same shape and the same number for decades.

Ruscha 313 began with a focus on the aesthetic element that proved difficult to maintain, and this was perhaps a sign that Tschörner wasn’t as well-versed in pottery as he was in glass.  Otherwise, he might have taken the problems into account the way Siery did with Scheurich 271.  However, that would have meant never have the original or slightly modified forms of 313, which would be a great loss.  And it may well have been the success of the form that forced Ruscha to increase production, so that the success of the original aesthetics made the commercial aspect more important……causing the diminishing of the aesthetics in the eventual, longest lasting version of 313.

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So Ruscha 313 and Scheurich 271 took different approaches, although both were attempts to create some balance between aesthetics and commercial production.  Both were successful enough to allow the companies to experiment, and for commercial potteries, there is no success without commercial success.  And the commercial successes allow companies to try out lines that may flop, may become icons, or may find themselves in that middle ground.  As with philosophy, so it is with art pottery, and there is much to say for finding a balance on the middle road.

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.

Collecting West and East German Pottery

The thought for the day in the Oprah newsletter for February 6, 2006 read, “Your home should replenish your senses and feed your soul.” Few companies or even eras offer as many ways to achieve that goal as does West German pottery. The forms and glazes on West German pottery are fascinating enough, but when you consider the soil from which such vitality and whimsy grew, the story takes on another dimension.

Work backwards through history and we have the economic struggles and political tensions of the 1970’s, the cold war of the 1960’s and 1950’s. We have WWII, the Nazi repressions, and for Germany and much of Europe, the slow recovery from WWI. That takes us to the time of the Bauhaus school, one of the most influential design schools of all time, an enduring, worldwide influence currently visible in Jonathan Adler’s designs (which have never been as “new” as claimed by some, quite derivative).

The Bauhaus school represented modern, forward thinking, not exactly something the Nazi party favored. The pottery portion of the school closed in 1925, followed by the rest of the school in the early 30’s. Energy and resources were soon poured into the war, but the end result was psychological, emotional and physical rubble. Surely any art that could grow from such soil would echo Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Instead, there came forms such as Ruscha’s shape 313 designed by Kurt Tschoerner, elegance mixed with exaggeration, surpising, and odd, yet perfect proportions that please the eye and tickle the senses. Decorations ranged from cute mixed with innocence to geometric designs that somehow mixed a sense of challenge with a sense of humor. It certainly made marketing sense. Instead of Calgon, it was “Pottery, take me away.” (There were exceptions, such as the darker side of the “Paris” decor designed by Hanns Welling for Ruscha and the darker Montmartre Welling did earlier for Keto.)

Through the 1950’s and into the early 60’s, the most popular designs echoed the Art Deco period, particularly the vitality of that era plus the insistent innocence that later infused “Happy Days”. However, unlike the angular, geometric forms of the Art Deco period, many of the early West German forms featured gentle curves, just not quite where you expected to find them. While some forms maintained a classic look, asymmetry gave others the look of caricature.

From around 1965 into the mid 70’s, many forms and colors grew more exaggerated and more intense without losing that fine sense of proportion and whimsy. In a paradox typical of this pottery, soothing earthtone glazes were popular at the same time, sometimes on the same piece with a vibrant orange or other lively Pop Art shade. Lava glazes and other textural elements added another level of variety and complexity in that subcategory now called fat lava (sometimes rightly, sometimes not).

Beginning in the early 70’s, a weak economy began to take its toll, and factories closed. By the mid 70’s, it was clear that the special drive that grew out of repression was losing momentum, and one of the great eras in art pottery was coming to a close. Wonderful items were designed and produced through the 1980’s and reunification, but the number and range were significantly reduced. The more I’m around the better pieces, the more I believe that the spirit that enabled art and artists to survive was poured into the pottery, and the vitality went not only into a range of creativity possibly unmatched for breadth and depth but into the designs and clay.

This art became not only the result of vitality but about vitality, and that strength and energy come out in the pottery even now, radiating into the room. Even the sense of whimsy underlying so much of the art is about survival because without the perspective supplied by humor survival becomes about hardness, not hope. Ways to Collect West German Pottery

Some collectors have stumbled into the W. German field by buying an item or two at the low-risk cost found at yard sales or thrift shops. Others have seen some sweet items available but can’t quite decide to take the chance. Quite often the question is, “where do I go from here?” What does it mean to collect West German pottery? That’s a big question for a novice in any collecting category, but it’s even bigger when the field is virtually untraveled with no well-worn paths to follow and no books acting as maps, not even a good idea of what the choices are.

The beginning point is the same in any collecting field: start according to your taste, budget, and experience. As with any good philosophy, the idea is simple and straightforward. It’s the application that’s hard. Budget is the easiest part for most of us, those who consider the term extra money an oxymoron. Still, just because we’re broke doesn’t mean we don’t need beauty around us.

Rule number one is buy the best you can afford. Sometimes that means buying one really good piece, sometimes buying two or three fairly good pieces. It also means don’t go wild and buy a bunch of poorly done pieces just for the sake of quantity. Even though the most widely available items are the tourist pieces, there are better and worse pieces even within that category.

For inexperienced collectors, there’s a sub-category of vases with gold glazes that makes a good entry point. Several companies did items with gold-highlighted glazes. In this case, that means gold glaze, not just gold that’s painted on. A gold glaze can be rather tricky, so there’s value in the difficulty as well as the appearance.

Most of the vases in this category are relatively small (3-6″) and often have fairly traditional, classic forms. Prices on these tend to be low, particularly compared to the aesthetic value, and even when W. German items become more widely known, many of the simple versions will stay within relatively easy economic reach. However, there are also nicer items within the category.

The potential value on the gold glazes is based on form, glaze complexity, and size. The odd, exaggerated forms represent the period and will generally be more prized by mid-century collectors. Glazes with more complex, usually abstract, patterns will also command a higher price. Collectors of American art pottery will find some items reminiscent of Weller Cloudburst.

Collectors in this field can work up from fairly mass market items to the finer versions. Makers include Bay and Carstens, but the Jaspatina glaze from Jasba is among the best. Items over 8″ appear to be uncommon, and glazes combining red and gold among the most uncommon. Most of the gold-glazed work dates from 1956 to the early 1960’s. (The Bay and Carstens items tend to be in the lower price range, while the better and larger Jaspatina items have higher values.)

While much of the W. German work is unusual in form and decoration, collectors can often find connections with other fields to bring a sense of familiarity that may help collectors determine just where they’re tastes and preferences lie within the W. German field. For example, many W. German items have archaic decorations and coloring that fit well with a southwestern theme.

Even glass collectors will find connections, especially those who collect Blenko or Pilgrim. The strong colors and emphasis on large items will make those collectors feel right at home. Collecting through such comparisons also opens intriguing cross-collecting possibilities.

I’ve found that many collectors get a bit fixated on a particular item or style, but playing glass off of pottery or one style with another can create surprising combinations with a feeling all their own. I know one collector who puts her 1970’s Pop Art vases alongside her utilitarian crocks and is delighted with the result. Perhaps the idea just brings out the child in me, going back to happy hours spent combining blocks in every combination possible and mixing in other toys just to see what happened.

It’s also possible to collect by shape or glaze. Many of the shapes were produced for a fairly long period and can be found in numerous glazes. Two particular examples are Ruscha shape 313 (designed by Kurt Tschoerner) and Scheurich shape 271 (designed by Hans Siery). Both shapes are fairly easily found, but coming up with all the glazes could be a lifetime project. Ruscha 313 was produced for about 30 years and 50 or so different glazes, and the form was modified somewhat some time in the 1960’s.

Perhaps the only way I don’t suggest collecting is by name. In W. German pottery, it’s rather difficult anyway since both the company and the designer are so often still unknown. However, the real problem is that collecting by name has a tendency to run up the cost without relationship to any real value. At the moment, pieces attributed to Bodo Mans sell higher just because of the name, and the ironic part is that this name value comes from Mans’ connection to France and Picasso, an odd reason to buy German pottery. It’s also problematic that many of the items you’ll find listed as Bodo Mans designs….aren’t.

Several companies also used a motif that I call a heartstripe, an irregular, horizontal band of contrasting color around the center of the vase. These stripes are most often found in orange or red, which suggests a vitality emanating from the center. In some cases, the stripe is bound top and bottom by a lava glaze that creates a geological look and opens numerous philosophical readings for those so inclined. Scheurich, Carstens, Steuler, and Hutschenreuther were particularly fond of this motif.

Some of the Mans designs are certainly attractive, but others are much less so, and there’s serious doubt about some of the attributions. On the other hand, I’m personally fond of designs I’ve seen by Cari Zalloni, so there can certainly be connections between collector and designer. The trick is to always consider the piece, not just the name.

In some respects, collecting should be done much like child raising, with a mix of freedom and control. A good collection really is much like a living thing, growing in often unexpected ways and sometimes needing to leave some things behind. Fortunately, with a collection you can sell or give away the items that no longer please you as they once did, a method not generally approved of with children.

Still, you don’t have to worry about getting your collection “right”. You will change, and so will the collection and your relationship with it. Be willing to take some chances (within the limits of your budget) and buy a piece that speaks to you even though it doesn’t seem to fit right now.

Even with the pieces you have at home, think of them like the blocks you played with as a kid, moving them around, always trying new arrangements just to see how the relationships change. Try the soothing items in one room and the eye-poppers in another, then try mixing them. You may be able to create a sense of story depending on how items connect.

Most importantly, make sure that your collection makes you happy. You should enjoy walking into the room more because of the pottery. And be sure to slow down enough to let the pottery speak. Let yourself be soothed by that gentle curve or be revitalized by that orange heartstripe.

Be sure to check out the other parts of the site, including videos, and our W. German pottery for sale. There’s no yellow brick road, but you may still want to start at the beginning. Thanks for dropping by.

ES Keramik Research Photo Gallery

Emons & Sohne (1921-1974) was not widely known for a long time except for a few forms and glazes. The problem was that they almost never marked items. However, between labels, catalogs, and additional research more and more items have been properly attributed to ES, and many of those glazes have turned out to be some of the best for commercial W. German art pottery. To see the ES Keramik we currently have for sale, click here. The page will open in a new tab.

If you’re enjoying the ES Keramik gallery, I hope you’ll check out some of the other photo research galleries. The blog has a lot of other information as well, currently mostly about W. German pottery. Of course, the main site also has a lot of East and West German pottery for sale along with other ceramics, glass, paintings, and odd bits. You can find your way to the home page by clicking here, rather than clicking your heels three times. Of course, you’re free to click those heels, too. Either way, the page will open in a new tab.

Hope you’ll visit again and often as well as telling your friends, vague acquaintances, and complete strangers.

Dümler & Breiden Research Photo Gallery

Dümler & Breiden: (1883-1992) D&B was one of the many companies in the Höhr-Grenzhausen region, and they produced an enormous range of styles over the years, from very traditional to strong Pop Art. Although they most often used white to buff clay, they did sometimes use red, particularly in their Terra series and other klinker-like items. To see our Dümler & Breiden currently for sale, click here. The page will open in a new tab.

Be sure to check out the other photo galleries, blog posts, and the main site with W. German pottery, other porcelain, glass, paintings, and odd bits for sale. Thanks for dropping by Gin-For’s Odditiques. Please come by again, and tell your friends. Shoot, you can even tell strangers.

Ceramano Research Photo Gallery

Ceramano (1959-84) was started by Jakob Schwaderlapp, who also ran Jasba, to be a higher-end company, more like a studio than most commercial art potteries. Quality was high and production numbers relatively low. While the production from most commercial potteries is all molded (although often with hand work in the decoration), Ceramano did both molded and hand-made pots. Designers included Gerda Heuckenroth and Hanns Welling. Top decors include Pergamon, Rustica, and Rubin plus rarities such as Saturn. Many of the more subtle glazes remain under-rated. Clay color ranges from light brown to very dark brown. This gallery gives just a hint of the range produced, but it’s a start. To see our Ceramano items for sale, click here. Page will open in a new tab.

Carstens Research Gallery

Previously sold items so people can see more of what Carstens made and learn about W. German pottery. To see our Carstens items currently for sale, click here. Page will open in a new tab. Keep in mind that this doesn’t even qualify as the tip of the iceberg, hardly a hint of the tip. Also, the items here focus on the better production. While Carstens Tönnieshof produced a lot of high quality items, they also made their share of lower end wares.


They Call It Fat Lava

An Introduction to East and West German Pottery Volcanic Glazes

Long before most people had noticed West German pottery, a few German sellers on eBay used the phrase “fat lava” to describe the unusually thick, often flowing glazes on some items. Based on that usage, the term appears to have been a slight mistranslation, shifting “thick” to “fat”, with thick meaning depth, or how much the glaze rises above the surface of the clay, not a matter of viscosity.

A few years later, Graham Cooley held an exhibition using fat lava as part of the title, and Mark Hill published the expanded exhibition catalog Fat Lava, which brought the phrase to wider attention, and the phrase was fun enough to catch on, perhaps too well. Soon, people were equating fat lava with all mid century modern German pottery, but the reality is that only a small sub-group fits the term, and many of the finest works are not fat lava at all.

I’m attempting to bring a degree of regularity to the usage by defining some of the terms so we can discuss both the larger category and sub categories with more precision. It’s rather tricky because there are a number of terms that can mean different things, and the variety in the glazes is enormous, so please be patient as I sort through the variables.

Drip Glaze

Belgian drip glaze vase

Quite often, a fat lava glaze runs down over another glaze. In broader terms, this is a drip glaze, and it’s been used for a long time. In American art pottery, drip glazes are probably best known on Fulper Pottery or some Roseville lines, such as Carnelian. Excellent drip glazes were also done by Belgian and French potteries in the early 20th century. On these earlier versions, there is little or no difference in the thicknesses of the top and bottom glazes, so one type of fat lava glaze is a drip glaze, but it’s only fat lava if one of the glazes involved is “thick” enough.

Color

Color is in no way involved in whether or not a glaze should be called fat lava. There are many fiery orange and red glazes on mid century German pottery, often suggesting the color of hot lava. Some of these glazes have a flowing or drip quality as well, but it remains thickness that’s a defining characteristic. If it’s not “fat”, it’s not fat lava.

On the other hand, there are many “fat” glazes in colors that look nothing like lava, hot or cold. If we start using color as a distinguishing characteristic, then we have to start coming up with so many different names that communication becomes even more difficult than usual. So we’re better off calling a thick, flowing white glaze fat lava even when it doesn’t quite make sense in some respects. Like so many things, language is based on compromise.

Volcanic Glazes

Scheurich fat lava glaze vase

The proper use of certain ingredients can cause controlled (somewhat) gaseous explosions in the glaze, producing holes of different types. These are called volcanic glazes. One of the best known creators of volcanic glazes is Otto Natzler, who came to the US from Austria with his wife Gertrud in 1938. By coming to the US, Natzler was able to continue his glaze experiments at a time when all art was increasing repressed in Germany. As a result of that repression and the war, it was about 1965 before German companies began producing volcanic glazes.

Many of the mid century German volcanic glazes are also quite thick, but it’s also possible to make fairly thin volcanic glazes (which describes most of the Natzler glazes). So a volcanic glaze will always be visually suggestive of lava (or the moon), but not all volcanic glazes are fat. The texture of a volcanic glaze can also vary with large or small craters and sharp or smooth edges. Gramann(Töpferei Römhild) made some of the best, flowing fat lava glazes, but they also made many volcanic glazes that are relatively thin with small, tightly controlled craters.

Scheurich vase

One of the most common uses of volcanic glazes is actually in applied designs, usually with a fairly fine, pumice-like glaze. However, even though these designs are thicker than the primary glaze, the difference is often not very extreme, so whether or not these qualify as fat is variable. Still, since there’s no point in trying to establish a precise measurement for at what point a glaze becomes “fat”, most of them can probably be called fat lava. Indeed many or most of the items in the first Fat Lava exhibition and catalog were simply fat lava “detailed” with only a small part of the surface covered in the namesake glaze. I expect that we’ll eventually establish a sub-category for such items. Volcanic glazes often have little or no “flow” to them, but given the texture a thick volcanic glaze should certainly qualify as fat lava. In fact, the fat lava volcanic glazes probably significantly outnumber the fat lava drip glazes, and the volcanic is probably the more accurate term, while fat lava happens to be more fun.

Other Considerations

Some companies named glazes “Vulkano” (Volcano) or “Lava”, so we need to be careful with our usage and distinguish between official glaze names and the other uses of the words.

Cyclope French fat lava glaze vase

Take note that not all fat lava volcanic glazes are German. Also, there are companies that use lava pieces in the glaze or decoration. While in a technical sense these are volcanic and lava, we need to use terms carefully. These probably shouldn’t be called fat lava, and the use of volcanic should be made clear in the context of any discussion.

Obviously, my only “authority” for saying what should or shouldn’t be called fat lava comes only from observation and experience, and there will always be disagreements about language. Still, I hope this will get people to think about both what they see and what they say and appreciate the value of precision in both. The world opens up in fascinating new ways each time we learn to see a little more clearly and in a little more depth. As many have said before me, the world doesn’t really exist until an artist makes us see it, but we have to learn to do some of the work when the art calls to us.

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Keys to the Company: Ruscha

cropped-catswho.largecanvas.jpgA Few Things to Know About Ruscha (1948-96)

1. Vases with no handles are numbered in the 800 sequence; jugs in the 300 sequence; and two-handled vases most likely to be in the 60 sequence.

2. Early work tends to have hand “painted” marks that often include the company name. Later work will often have an embossed “Ruscha”. In between, it was

The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn't handle.
The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn’t handle.

common to have only numbers or number and country.

3. Ruscha mostly used white/buff clay but did use red clay from time to time, apparently most often in the late 50s to early 60s. The same shape in red clay tends to be slightly smaller with finer detailing than a version with white clay.

4. Many top form designers and glaze artists worked at Ruscha at

ruscha.333.mug

one time or another, including Kurt Tschoerner, Otto Gerharz, Hanns Welling, and Adele Bölz

5. Otto Keramik owns some of the molds, including the steer/bull and has issued items in various glazes. In most cases, new versions are fairly easy to pick out if you are familiar with older glazes. However, they seem to have reproduced a few early glazes well, not

surprising since Otto Gerharz Sr. developed many of them at Ruscha. (Contemporary volcanic glazes tend to be “flatter” than originals and may have less distinct coloring.)

6. My understanding is that Scheurich now owns the Ruscha name. Since Scheurich has taken advantage of interest in vintage items by re-issuing some of their own successes, they may try to use the Ruscha name in the same way. Always buy pottery based on quality, not “name”.

bianca.ruscha.2.5.177. The iconic Ruscha 313 form was revised at some point, although when remains unclear. Shape changes made the 313 easier to produce in larger numbers, which is likely a main reason why the revised version is more common. Some of the later glazes, however, are still spectacular.

For more information and items for sale, please visit our home page.

Photos used show an original form 313, a later version of shape 333 (Ruscha did re-use some numbers.), and a Quadriga plaque….Bianca not included.

Keys to the Company: Scheurich Keramik

sch.cop  1. They were better at glazes than shapes. While Scheurich designers produced a few excellent forms, many of the shapes ranged from poor to only fair. Some, such as the classic 517, were very good in terms of proportions but not inventive.

2. The number of glazes produced from the mid 1950s through the mid 1980s is almost beyond imagining or counting. With such numbers, there were many mediocre results, but Scheurich also produced some of the most impressive glazes of the era. “Market” value is almost entirely based on glaze with the exception of a few shapes with better design. A shape such as 271 designed by Heinz Siery is very commonly available, and common or lesser decorations should usually be in the $15 range. The best and rarest so far known can justify a price in the $150 range.

3. Scheurich re-used form numbers more than other companies. Searching or identifying Scheurich based on the shape number and size is problematic at best because many numbers were used 2-4 times. Shapes are sometimes similar, sometimes barely related.

4. Scheurich number placement varies, sometimes around the edge, sometimes centered. Form numbers are 3 digits, and the following number is the approximate size in centimeters. Until the late 1970s or 80s, Scheurich never included the company name. A little later they started using an embossed “three-circle” mark. Most items with this mark are lesser quality and unlikely to become collectible. If you see an item with only “Germany” and the three-circle mark, it’s almost certainly post-reunification.sch.vol.bl

5. Scheurich used white/buff clay. I am not aware of a single piece of Scheurich in any other clay, but the glaze does sometimes stain the clay slightly.

6. Some of the embossed designs and a few other forms have their own name. These include Vienna/Wien, Ceramos, Jura, and Coral/Koralle. Be aware that some items have “collector” names that were given before the company names were known. A prime example is Amsterdam, which was dubbed Onion since the design looks like a cut onion. However, the name Amsterdam reveals that the design is actually based on the image of a tulip bulb.

7. Scheurich floor vases with animals are among the most popular scheurich.267.20.botwith collectors, but the quality varies, especially when the primary glaze overruns the decoration. Value should take both the glaze and the quality of the individual piece into consideration. This is always true but applies particularly strongly with these items.

8. Scheurich was by far the largest producer, so most items are common. The company is still in business and has released the 271 shape (now marked with a clear plastic label) and has re-issued Amsterdam, but the design does not continue to the rim as it did on the originals.

Pictures show a fairly common Scheurich floor vase shape with an uncommon  glaze, one of Scheurich’s “all over” volcanic glazes, and example of “fat lava”, and a fairly typical Scheurich base, keeping in mind that  the bases were almost as numerous as the glazes….or so it seems when trying to sort them out.

For more information plus items for sale, visit our home page…..not just the usual suspects.