A Guide to Developing an Expert’s Eye
I appraise valuable objects almost every single day, and I’m often asked how I identify a piece so quickly. The short answer is: lots and lots of experience!
But how does one go about obtaining that experience? That’s the longer answer. This visual checklist can help you begin to develop an expert’s eye when it comes to looking at and identifying pottery from the late 19th century through the present day.
1. What is the glaze, finish, or decoration?
Every potter and studio has a “visual signature,” meaning a style unique to that artist. Many people easily recognize the style of a Van Gogh or a Jackson Pollock painting – and the same type of familiarity is possible when it comes to studio pottery. Once you’ve seen enough examples of an artist’s work, you start to recognize similar pieces. You can train your eye to recognize nuances of glaze, decoration, and form by viewing pieces at galleries, studios, museums, and auction previews. Books and websites are helpful as well, but seeing the piece in person always leaves a more lasting impression.
2. What is the size and shape of the piece?
A vase may be tall, round, and slim, short and square, or anything in between. The basic form of a piece of pottery can reveal the period when it was made. Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau pieces tend to have a classical form. Angular forms became more prevalent starting with Art Deco and continuing through contemporary times. Small vessels used to test a new glaze or firing technique are rare and fun to find. The form, along with the glaze and decoration, is also an important aspect of the visual signature.
3. Is anything marked on the base of the piece?
It’s important to turn a piece of pottery over and inspect the base. If you’re new to looking at pottery, any marks you find may seem cryptic and random. Some common marks include the studio where the piece was made, the potter who crafted the piece, and the signature of the artist who decorated it. A form number and identification of the clay type may also be included. Reference books can help you identify unfamiliar marks. Don’t be surprised if the base has no marks at all, though. Many contemporary potters do not sign their work – they expect the viewer to know their visual signature.
4. What type of clay was used?
The base of a piece of pottery also reveals the type of clay. Even if there is no mark identifying this, the color or texture of the unfinished base can reveal the type of clay that was used. Historically, potters used a clay local to the area where they worked, meaning that the clay type can reveal the location where a piece was made. For example, pieces by Chelsea Keramic, located in Chelsea, MA, were formed from red clay. Later, the firm moved to Dedham, MA and became Dedham Pottery. Pieces created in Dedham are made from gray/white clay.
Click on the examples below to see the piece of pottery each base identifies.
Due to supply, demand, and improvements in predictability of clay during forming and firing, potters today often buy clay from a supplier, and local clay is no longer a strong visual clue when it comes to identifying contemporary pieces.
A Visual Puzzle
I developed my eye for art and studio pottery through years of experience. In the near future, though, computers and visual recognition programs may start to make it much easier for anyone to identify a piece. Imagine a vast computer library of known pottery examples – all you have to do is input a picture of a new piece, and the program will compare the image data to all known examples. Three-dimensional imaging technology may even make it possible to collect and compare data from the base, sides, and interior at the same time.
Until these programs become widespread in the world of the visual arts, you can still use a visual checklist and your own memory to compare a piece to examples you’ve seen before. It’s a fun exercise for your brain!
Here’s a puzzle to test your pottery identification skills. Can you identify the visual signature of these plates? (Here’s a hint: it’s a well-known American pottery firm). If that’s too easy, then how many of the design motifs can you name?
Click on the picture to view the catalog descriptions of these and other similar plates that will be offered in our June 22, 2013 20th Century design auction in Boston.