One by one, as the auctioneer appraised each, "it's just missing that special something," antique, it became clear that Bill had made some mistakes. Forget about making the mortgage payment and buying groceries for wife and kids. He might even lose money on this lot. Full time antique pickers like Wild Bill, as I'll call him for this article, are made of a different cloth than most of us. A hundred years ago these men and woman might well have been prospecting for gold in grizzly country, or staking their horse and saddle on a pair of Queens in some dusty saloon.
The auctioneer unrolled a wheel-thrown, 12" tall, earthenware (slightly porous pottery fired at relatively low temperatures) vase from it's newspaper packing. It was hand-decorated with a mystical moonlit forest scene under a chalky matt glaze. The sides sloped in to a curving shoulder. It had a narrow neck and a slightly flaring rim. The Japanese form caught the auctioneer's attention because he was aware that Japanese design had a great influence on valuable pottery made during the Arts & Crafts Period(1880-1930). "How much did you pay for this?" the auctioneer asked. "Found it at a tag sale," Bill said, grinding his teeth. He was hoping the vase might pull him out his month. The auctioneer picked the vessel up and inspected the base. It was marked with an impressed conjoined RP (the R shown in reverse), surrounded by little flames. It was also initialed, CS. The insignificant appearing vase was an artist signed piece of Rookwood pottery!
The seed of most important art pottery in American history began, when, by some mischance, Maria Longworth Nicholas' (1849-1932) invitation to join in on a Woman's Pottery Club, made up of her fellow China Painting Class students, was not received. Feeling slighted by the friends, the intractable woman convinced her prosperous grandfather that she needed a pottery of her own. Rookwood was named in honor of Maria's homeplace. The many crows that nested there became the inspiration for one of the pottery's trademarks.
Maria established her studio in an old schoolhouse in Cincinnati, Ohio. She quickly secured the services of the most competent local ceramic workers. Artistic freedom and expression were encouraged. Experiments were made in search of improved materials and processes. In 1889, Rookwood was awarded the Gold Medal at the Universal Exposition at Paris. Maria's hobby was now a profitable industry. For 80 years, the pottery succeeded on the strength of its artists, business managers, and by adapting to the changing taste of its clients. A great variety of wares were produced, from decorative panels for hotels to domestic pots.
Artist signed (initialed) pieces were not made at Rookwood after 1950. Pre-depression examples are most sought after today. The finest examples of Rookwood wares combine Japanese design influence with the ideals and aesthetics of natural imagery and hand-craftsmanship predominant in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Decorative motifs include floral, fauna, landscape, and portraits of American Indians. Colors often blend from one tone to another. Glazes vary from Rookwood's patented "Vellum" matt, to a clear, shiny, high-glaze.
I'll never forget the smile that flashed on Bill's face when the auctioneer banged his hammer down. "Sold!" he said. "For five-thousand dollars!" Rookwood pottery can still be found at tag sales, shops, etc. I've looked at three such pieces in the past two years. One should become familiar with Rookwood marks and products. There's a little Wild Bill in all of us!