While Lars Tharp was in Hamilton, he attracted a sell-out group to a study day. Coming from a household that is singularly lacking in ceramic treasures, I took a prurient interest in the valuations placed on other people’s collectibles. Of more lasting value from my perspective was, however, Lars’ discussion of the place of clay in our lives from time immemorial through to some of the sophisticated technological requirements of the present day.
So where to start? With the nosey bit, of course!
Lars reiterated his key message of his lecture to the Waikato Decorative and Fine Arts Society (DFAS) the night before. The story behind the item can add immeasurably to its value. Lars showed a picture of the Walsingham bowl, on display at Burghley House – reputedly a gift from Sir Francis Drake to Queen Elizabeth I, who passed the blue bowl on to Walsingham. He described the ceramic ware as “unremarkable”, but the provenance would have increased its value substantially. It would be kind of cool to be able pass round the peanuts in a bowl that Queen Elizabeth I had handled.
Story or no story, the value of Japanese wares has plummeted – even treasures go in and out of fashion, apparently. Lars described an exquisitely hand-painted Japanese tea set as “almost impossible to sell at auction”. A Wedgwood transfer-printed dish might, he suggested, reach £15.
One seminar guest was pretty proud of his armorial ware – a little blue and white 1760s sauce boat, featuring painted landscapes and a coat of arms, produced for the Russell family of Scotland. Lars valued it at between £600 to £900 – about what the owner expected. Another guest, the owner of an intricately decorated bowl that looked like part of a washstand set, was less impressed. The owner did not react to the valuation. “Come on,” urged Lars. “Look thrilled.” The peeved owner told him that she was previously told that the bowl was worth about £1000 more than that. “Was the person who gave you that valuation prepared to pay you that much?” asked Lars.
I suppose it is all a matter of taste – and clearly Antiques Roadshow taste is something in which I am seriously deficient. It seemed to me that the uglier the item the more it was worth. Hearing that a huge rhinoceros horn on a carved ebony stand might reach up to £40,000 (“and there’s a matching one at home”) I did not feel even a twinge of envy. I was pleased to go home to my fine pottery bowl in shades of blue and green, thrown and glazed by the late Hugh Prosser. I watch the light through our elegant blue Hogland glass bowl, carried on the knee of a special friend on a flight all the way from Nelson to Auckland, to ensure it reached Iggy and me intact for our wedding day. I run my hands over the earthiness of our Dave Wolland ewer, thrown in Matakohe from local Northland clay, and given to us by another friend as a wedding gift, as a symbol of what is enduring.
What did I learn about the history of ceramics? Many religions refer to mankind as being created by God out of clay. Burials have close associations with clay, with urns being used for ashes. Fired clay goes back to the Ice Age. Unfired clay goes back to 25,000 BC. Porcelain was the first globally traded product. Once humans settled in towns, they needed to keep records, hence the development of hieroglyphics – records baked in clay. Lars compared the life of information stored that way (4,500 years) compared to the longevity of information stored on a USB stick. When the transmission of electrical power started in the 19th century, insulators made of clay were an essential part of the process.
Here’s one for you, Iggy. The braking systems on aeroplanes had ceramic components.
I always enjoy a little bit of linguistic information. In ancient times, the elders met to decide who was to be voted out of the city. Shards of broken pottery, called “ostra” had the names of those who were not wanted in the community scratched onto them. The shards were placed in a vase. As each shard was drawn from the vase, a vote was cast as to whether the person should be allowed to stay. The person who won the least votes had to leave the city – he was “ostracised”.
Lars’ useful tips for collectors included: If you like something and you can afford it, buy it. If you are told that an item is old and it is in good condition, ask why it is being sold – and ask for the claims being made about the item to be put in writing. Be on guard if a dealer can’t tell you about an item. Research what price range the items you are interested in sell for – alarm bells should ring if the price is wrong.
The day was, indeed, my pot of gold. Lars shared such a wealth of knowledge – and knowledge does not need to be dusted, insured or left to family members to feud over. That’s real gold in my book.