I nterest in contemporary and studio ceramics has never been stronger, and today we are bombarded with pictures of pots daily through social media whether from makers and curators, to museum-goers and Hollywood A-listers. As a result, it can be a little daunting knowing just where to turn if you’re thinking about starting to collect. As interest grows so too do the channels through which you can buy ceramics – with more and more being made available online. But before you buy, below are a few helpful tips in taking those first tentative steps, drawing on highlights from Sotheby’s 17th March Made In Britain auction.
Know What You're Buying
The most important thing about starting any collection – whether it’s masterpieces by Monet or Happy Meal toys – is to familiarise yourself with the works that you’re looking at. Before you buy anything take the opportunity to see (and I mean really see – and hold in your hands – as photos alone can never do ceramics justice) as much as possible in museums, galleries, auction houses, studios and pop-up fairs and markets. This way you will get a feel for what you like, and as importantly, what you don’t like. Ceramics are things that you have around you in your daily lives, and it’s important to pick pieces that appeal to you, otherwise they will be left languishing in a box somewhere.
At Sotheby’s we offer contemporary and studio ceramics through our twice-yearly Made In Britain auctions – sales that celebrate the interdisciplinary nature of the British art scene over the past century and include paintings, works on paper, prints, photography, contemporary and studio ceramics and design. Here you get a great sense of just how well ceramics fit alongside paintings, prints and photographs by some of the leading artists and makers of the past century!
Buy the Best
I would always advocate buying the very best that you can afford. This doesn’t mean that you need to be stumping up a six-figure sum, and if your budget is only a few hundred pounds you can still buy very good work by well-known and sought-after makers. Consider focusing your attention on a single work. Rather than spreading your budget over three or four different pieces, you will be able to afford a more substantial work if you focus on just one. This is the same over time. If you have a set amount that you want to spend over the course of a year, then save up and make that one important purchase – you will usually end up loving the piece a lot more in the end!
Condition is Key
Awareness of condition is paramount when it comes to ceramics. Some will say never buy a restored work, but for a lot of us it’s the only chance we may get to own a pot by somebody such as Lucie Rie or Hans Coper, as damage and restoration will always impact price (regardless of how good the restoration is). The important thing is to be aware of it before you buy. Always ask questions about the condition and look closely with a torch (I use my iphone torch) – or in some cases a UV light as well, as this will show up any restoration not visible to the naked eye.
What's in a Name
British studio ceramics blur the lines between art and craft – and whilst traditionally potters were often overlooked in favour of the ‘fine arts’ attitudes and opinions have really started to shift in recent years – aided by key names such as Edmund de Waal and Grayson Perry. But this should be nothing new, as ceramicists have always played a central role in the British art scene – whether through the likes of William Staite Murray exhibiting alongside the likes of Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore in the Seven & Five Society; Bernard Leach’s teaching at Dartington Hall or James Tower showing at what was the most fashionable London gallery in the 1950s and ‘60s alongside the likes of Peter Lanyon and Barbara Hepworth. Approaching studio ceramics in this manner will allow you to appreciate them in a whole new light, and seen alongside sculpture they can offer great value for money!
The Fun of the Chase
Collecting should always bring enjoyment, and you really must love what you buy. With ceramics there is a thrill in getting to know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the mysterious material of clay. As the earth’s most basic and accessible substance, it’s fascinating to see the different ways in which artists, ceramicists, potters (whatever they call themselves!) use it. Such great breadth really does mean that when it comes to pottery there is something for every collector – and finding what’s for you, well that’s the fun of it!