The history of modern and contemporary ceramics since World War II has been a period of explosive growth, buoyed by American confidence and an emergent audience and marketplace. Potters established studios, developed support groups, and received recognition in public and private collections and competitions. The GI bill for returning veterans spurred burgeoning academic programs and residency centers. The boom in collecting ceramics from the 1960s to the early 2000s was enabled by a now aging collector base that is currently downsizing and deaccessioning, hastened by an unpredictable economy, drastically changing the transfer of ownership from private hands to the public domain.
During the last five years of my tenure as curator of ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum, Ceramics Research Center, I would field two to four calls per month from collectors, artists, and heirs to estates, seeking solutions on what to do with the treasured objects in their possession. This trend mirrors what demographers have been forecasting for the last decade: the graying of America and the baby boom generation reaching stages in their lives where they need to consider what to do with their accumulated ceramic collection, carefully curated over many years. While not surprising, fielding these calls reiterates the need to prepare for the inevitable.
The circumstances of two significant collections changing hands in 2016 elucidate a proactive rather than a passive approach. Whether the mature artist, collector, or estate considers selling through auction, private sales, or donating objects to public museum collections, there are many considerations to factor.
Working with Institutions
Joan Elise Rechtin Lincoln, a potter, collector, and Phoenix philanthropist, passed away on March 7, 2016, surrounded with beloved objects accumulated over five decades; a collection that was painstakingly documented and served as an invaluable resource for artists, curators, and other collectors. Her collection, primarily small-scale functional pots, were works of beauty, refinement, and mystery, bestowing visual pleasures to all that beheld them. Viewing Lincoln’s personal collection with her assistance provided me a glimpse into her personality and our shared passion. Time and time again, I witnessed her lovingly caress pots in her care, studying every nuance of surface and form.
Lincoln authored “What Do You Do with 314 Pots?” in the April 1999 issue of Ceramics Monthly (the collection numbered over 600 works at the time of her passing). Her family contacted me to provide advice and facilitate the transfer of her collection to various local and national institutions, several of which they had built long-time relationships with, others receiving works benefiting their collections, or assisting ceramic students with studies.
Auctions tend to create a stir of emotions and great anticipation with a room full of eager buyers lorded over by the clipped staccato voice of the auctioneer. As a museum director and curator turned art appraiser, I follow fine art, design, and studio-craft auctions closely. My job as an appraiser relies on gallery, secondary private sales, as well as public information auction records, as a means of establishing fair market value for my clients, whether they are gifting to museums, insuring their collection, or settling estates. So it was with great anticipation that I followed the “Fire & Form: Fine Art and Ceramics Part I” from the estate of Candice B. Groot sale held on April 16, 2016 at Treadway Toomey Auctions, Oak Park, Illinois (“Fire & Form: Part II” took place November 12).
Candice Groot championed the ceramics field, stimulated by a voracious appetite to collect and her philanthropy with the Virginia A. Groot Foundation, named in honor of her mother. Established in 1988, the foundation has awarded impactful grants to artists, many of them working in clay. For many dealers, collectors, and curators following the secondary market trends in the ceramics field, and those participating in the Groot offerings (of 185 lots of ceramics, by both mid-career and established artists, all but 16 were sold), the sale functioned as a barometer of the contemporary market. Internet auction platforms, such as Live Auctioneers and Bidsquare, provide an international reach to potential buyers. The proceeds from this auction (over $2 million dollars) and from the second exhibition and auction in November ($1.17 million dollars), will continue Groot’s visionary passion in supporting artists and the creative process.
In recent years, a new alternative to auctions has developed. Many collectors and their heirs are choosing to work with private galleries that specialize in the re-selling of art collections. This model has emerged in large part because of the Internet and the global market for ceramics. Galleries have always transacted secondary sales, but the flood of art now entering the market has created galleries who specialize in a focused area of sales, helping clients downsize their collections and assisting heirs turning collections into funds which can be equally distributed among siblings who may or may not appreciate ceramics as much as their parents. Overall, these retail venues hold the potential to sell ceramics for higher results, but may take longer than other liquidation options. Venues such as Clark + Del Vecchio, Ferrin Contemporary, Jeffrey Spahn Gallery, and The Nevica Project all specialize in secondary ceramic sales.
Donations to Museums
Museums nationwide holding craft-based collections are now facing a tidal wave of donations from the aging collector base. Finding the right institution, one which will benefit from donor generosity, is imperative to both the collector and to the curators who must consider how these offerings dovetail into existing holdings. The cost of cataloging, storing, exhibiting, and preserving collections in perpetuity are major deliberations in accepting gifts, whether a single-object or comprehensive collection.
The heritage of our great museums was built with private collections. Peggy Guggenheim, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J. Paul Getty, and Norton Simon, are synonymous with philanthropic gifting, having made their private passion accessible to the public. This time-honored tradition continues in the ceramics field. In recent years, several private collections have entered the public domain; the Diane and Sandy Besser Collection was given to the deYoung Museum, San Francisco, California (2007); the Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection was given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas (2007); and the Stephen and Pamela Hootkin Collection of Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture was given to the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin (2014). These stellar collections, as well as hundreds of others, have been institutionalized as collectors downsize or bequeath their estates. In the process, they help shape the evolving identity of the receiving institution, as well as honoring the legacy of the donor.
Preserving Collectors’ Passion for Ceramics
A growing national conversation is underway by leaders in the field on how best to preserve and document the extraordinary collecting capabilities of craft collectors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Regional discussions are in the planning stages to better prepare the field for the continuing transition of shifting ownership. How will the field honor and preserve the passion of these individuals? A symbiotic relationship between artists, collectors, curators, and gallerists has always existed, with interrelated interests entwined and dependent on one another. Oral histories, documentation of objects, archives, and libraries are important aspects to record this singular and influential period of collecting—a legacy well worth preserving.
the author Peter Held retired from his position as curator of ceramics at Arizona State University’s Ceramics Research Center in June 2014, and currently oversees an art appraisal and consulting firm. He has organized more than 200 exhibitions, including seven national traveling shows. Held is the editor and essayist for 10 books including Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby (2013); Innovation and Change: Ceramics from the ASU Art Museum Collection (2009), and Akio Takamori: Between Clouds of Memory: A Mid-Career Survey (2005).
Subscriber Extra: Archive Article
You can read Joan Lincoln’s article “What Do You Do with 314 Pots?” from the April 1999 issue, here: https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2017/01/Ceramics_Monthly_apr99_cei0499d.pdf