I just received in the mail a ceramic pitcher that I purchased online about a week ago. I'm really excited about it because the story behind it happens ALL the time.
It all started with an online search for Danish design on the design shopping website of Chairish. I like to see what pieces are being sold by other vendors, compare prices and conditions of vintage pieces, particularly those of Scandinavian design. My search was for everything from furniture to decorative items.
One of the listings was a beautiful oxidized turquoise-toned glazed ceramic pitcher. The label for it was Mid-Century Danish Water Pitcher and the description: Mid-century Danish pottery pitcher signed on bottom RP.
A couple years ago I was in Paris soaking in the flea market, meeting dealers and learning more about French design. I came across the stall of a dealer that sold only ceramics, most of them from the 50s, most of them from the South of France. I was drawn immediately to one particular ceramic pitcher by a ceramist of the name of Allix. The pitcher was bright in its glazes of fuschia and turquoise. Its geometric shapes were captivating and the piece itself reminded me of Miami, I needed to have it.
I asked the Antiques Dealer as many questions as I could in my broken French and he was gracious enough to respond in his broken English. He showed me a book which had an image and some information on the ceramist who had made the ceramic pitcher I was purchasing. I took a picture of the cover of this book, hoping I'd be able to purchase once I was back home. It's important to understand the value of the pieces you purchase, especially the ones you fall instantly in love with, as I had with this ceramic piece.
Fast forward to last week, this water pitcher I was looking at seemed anything but Danish. Not that I am by any means an expert in Danish ceramics but the glaze immediately reminded me of something else, something more of a warmer climate, more Mediterranean, more casual and R.P. was the maker. What kind of a description is that?
I pulled out my book which has a little reference section in the back for signatures, seals, and marks. Sure enough, I found R.P. was a mark made by the ceramist Robert Picault. Robert Picault was a popular ceramist who lived and worked in Vallauris, France. He rethought ceramic kitchenware so that it could be used from the kitchen to the table. He was popular for his green geometric motifs based on a copper oxide. Provençal folklore was influential in his ceramic shapes, Pablo Picasso was a neighbor and influential in his painting motifs on ceramic. Picault was part of many international exhibitions and awarded a gold medal at the 1953 Milan Triennial. A prominent figure in the context of French pottery in the 50s.
How did such a mislabelling happen in the first place? Well, my theory is and I believe this happens more often than not. The vendor who was selling this pitcher online probably purchases lots of items wholesale from Denmark, sending containers back to the US. Within these pieces was probably the pitcher and without taking the time to do a little research on the signature, they missed out on holding a more valuable piece. Even if they didn't have my handy book, a quick internet research with the key works: turquoise ceramic pitcher R.P. would have brought up a similar style ceramic piece, that's how prominent Picaults's designs are.
So the "Danish Water Pitcher" that was selling for $54 online turned out to be a highly collectible French ceramic piece with a value of $300-$400 dollars. A beautiful piece of mid-century history with so much more of a story behind it!
It is impossible to know the design history of everything. I learn something new every day. We can only try to do as much research as possible when receiving a vintage piece. We listen to stories and in good faith might forward the information but we must take the time to confirm, even not bothering to look up a signature could be a missed opportunity to share the history and intentions behind a design piece.
So here are some tips if you are collecting ceramics or any vintage pieces in general:
1. If you see a vintage piece you like, scan it for labels, marks or signatures.
2. Ask the vendor as many questions as possible, who made it, what year, where they obtained it from?
3. Don't always trust the vendor 100%. Also, the internet on your phone is an incredible design source and it's right there in your pocket.
4. Find literature that supports the information gained, these books add resell value to your piece and help you understand the creative context of your piece.
5. Trust your eye. I clearly have a thing for ceramics from France from the 50s as I was able to spot the glaze and relate it to the pitcher already in my collection at home. If you find a piece you like, learn more about the history behind it. You might discover there was an artistic school or community behind the style and be able to recognize it in the future. This information helps you build a collected home over time.