“We have clients that have had them on the wall for 40 years since their mother bought them that have no idea what they're worth,” said Keith Gill, head of Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art department in London.
Ceramics broadly refers to objects formed from wide range of materials that are permanently changed when heated, including pottery, that is made of clay.
Even pieces by lesser-known ceramic artists are fetching high prices in the international collector marketplace, as interest in ceramics have surged.
“There's a reassessment going on about the importance of ceramics within twentieth century art,” said Matthew Hall, director of Erskine, Hall & Coe, a London gallery specialising in twentieth century and contemporary ceramics. “Serious art collectors are now looking at a range of ceramics artists and seeing how they influenced the art world.”
Ceramics, considered decorative art, were once dismissed as fine art's poorer cousins and valued for their usefulness first and their aesthetic appeal second. Today, though, the most collectible ceramics are valued as art objects, not functional objects.
Ceramics appeal to “18-year-olds and 84-year-olds alike”, said Gill, and can be bought for a fraction of the cost of even modern or contemporary prints. Works by contemporary ceramics artist Annie Turner, currently exhibiting in London gallery Erskine, Hall & Coe, start at a few hundred dollars.
Works by Pablo Picasso are enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity — and prices. Though he is best known for huge, Cubist paintings, his vases adorned with semi-nude maidens or plates depicting goats, birds or bull fights are now in demand. As the twentieth century's most prolific artist, Picasso produced a huge amount of ceramics (over 600 editions, each including 25 to 500 pieces).
Picasso wasn't a potter himself, but just added the designs or engravings. Though he created thousands of unique works, the majority come in multiple editions where Picasso would make a prototype and France’s former Madoura Pottery would reproduce them.
Interest from international collectors shot up after a 2012 Christie's auction profiled a collection of Picasso items from Madoura. According to art database company artnet, 396 items, including plates, plaques and vases, were sold for an average price of $8,233 in 2004. Eight years later, in 2012, 1,349 items were sold, for an average price of $16,137.
Even the smallest terracotta plaques decorated by Picasso now sell for £1,000 ($1,663) each. People who bought directly from Madoura in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s might have paid as little as $10.
As for a high water mark for value: in June, 2013, Christie's sold the Grand Vase aux Femmes Voiles, a glazed, terracotta vase featuring two semi-nude females, one of an edition of 25, for £980,275 ($1.53 million), a record price for Picasso ceramics at auction. By contrast, Gill said that original Picasso ceramics can still be bought for around £20,000 ($33,370).
Yet a twentieth century decorative plate or bowl doesn’t have to be a Picasso piece to be valuable. Indeed, collectors generally most prize original pieces that are hand-crafted by ceramic artists.
The Modernist studio potters Austrian-born Lucie Rie and German-born Hans Coper, two of the most collected ceramic artists of the twentieth century, are prime examples. Rie's vases and bowls and other works tend to have very clean, functional lines, while some Coper's work more closely resembles sculpture.
“Coper and Rie are a gold standard for collectors,” said Hall.
Phillips auction house sold several pieces by Rie and Coper for double their high estimates in New York in 2013, including Coper's large 1965 'Hourglass' form for $149,000. A tall 1968 Lucie Rie vase fetched $81,250, a new auction record for the artist.
Hall, who sells to international collectors from the UK, Russia, Switzerland, the US and Japan and elsewhere, believes there is growing demand for many lesser-known ceramic artists.
Two major works of twentieth century ceramics artist James Tower sold to Japanese collectors, for example. “The Japanese have always been important collectors of Lucie Rie and to a lesser extent, Hans Coper, but today Japanese collectors are looking far beyond that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the work of many contemporary Japanese ceramic artists, a country where pottery has always been prized as an art form and where there are over 3,000 clay artists working today, can still be bought for a few thousand dollars, even though interest from international collectors and museums is growing.
Female clay artist Nakaigawa Yuki, whose black, white and grey clay sculptures resemble living organisms, is one example. Her work is currently part of a group exhibition in New York at Joan B Mirviss gallery.
What to look for
New collectors can do their research by visiting ceramic gallery websites, exhibitions and art and design fairs. These are also good places to buy ceramics, as are auction houses, which hold an increasing number of online ceramics auctions alongside their traditional sales.
Since ceramics are fragile, buyers must consider how they will display and protect them. Gill warns collectors not to let unglazed ceramics, which can absorb dirt and moisture, gather dust and recommends they don't display plates using metal wall hangers that can scratch and chip them. He says that collectors often keep their ceramics in enclosed display cases to protect them. Collectors should always check for signatures or other distinguishing marks associated with particular artists before they buy.
The bottom line
Ceramics today are attracting attention from a range of collectors, including newbies, established collectors and fine art collectors. While many are beautiful art objects that can hold their own in any fine art collection, they are typically affordable enough to be a source of joy to those on mid-range salaries. “Find the artists that move you,” said Hall. “That's the most important consideration of all.”