Follow the Stories | Savannah, Georgia (2004)
Newcomb Pottery: Cream of the Crop
I am constantly asked what kinds of decorative-art ware make the best investments. For me, the question presents a no-win position, because I'm left either to choose something that may not increase in value over time, or else I end up encouraging collectors to focus on monetary value over aesthetic merit, which is no better. Nevertheless, I'll give you my favorite answer in a moment. First, I'll address whether or not Newcomb College pottery in particular is still a good investment.
The college encouraged young women of the late-19th and early-20th century to emerge from their parlors and embrace many of the practical changes unfolding in society.
H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College was founded in 1886 at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, with funds donated by Sophie's mother, Josephine. She had had long wanted a lasting memorial to her child, who died of diphtheria in 1870, only 15 years old. Newcomb was conceived as an all-women's institution, to provide training in the arts, with primary focus on ceramics, though painting, embroidery, woodworking, and bookbinding were taught as well. The college encouraged young women of the late-19th and early-20th century to emerge from their parlors and embrace many of the practical changes unfolding in society.
Around 1895, a pottery was introduced at the college, on an experimental basis at first, to give young women chance of employment in a field where few opportunities had existed up till then. And over the next 40 years, more than 70,000 pieces were produced. Each piece of Newcomb pottery was hand-thrown by a master potter, individually designed, and carefully glazed and decorated by one of the Newcomb students. And while many of the master potters at Newcomb were indeed men, the field came to be nearly evenly split during this period — quite a radical fact on its own.
The beauty of Newcomb College pottery is easily understood, favoring tones of soft blue and light green. The subjects chosen by the Newcomb students always reflected the lush nature of southern Louisiana, with bayou scenes, sunsets, rich vegetation and flowers, and the occasional critter. It is a very feminine ware, with languid shapes and lushly painted designs that speak somehow of a time long past, yet still available to the sensitive eye when touring the Crescent City.
On a deeper level, the pottery is also distinguished by its connection to the American Arts & Crafts movement, which placed emphasis on women's rightful place in the realm of the arts. And even if making and decorating art pottery was only one step toward realizing an expanding role for women in society, it was a vital springboard into modernity.
For many decades — especially since the market for Arts & Crafts took shape in the late 1960s — Newcomb College wares have been considered a "blue chip" art pottery. Where some people may see merely a vase, others perceive an intimate connection between inspiration, craft, and the defining moment of creation. Newcomb pottery is all that, and ultimately more than the sum of its parts. Today's buyers continue to pursue Newcomb pottery for just those reasons, and with a sureness borne of passion.
Thus, over the years Newcomb has been the steadiest and surest of all the American ceramic-producing schools, factories, and studios. In fact, the only way Newcomb ware would prove to be a bad investment is either if you were to sell a piece at the wrong time, or overpaid for a bad example when you first bought it. Truly, of over 200 period makers of American art pottery, this can be said only of Newcomb.
So when people ask me if art pottery is a good investment, I usually tell them first that if an "investment" is what they're searching for, they should be buying stock or real estate. To buy such lofty art ware primarily for financial gain is entirely beside the point. Genuine collectors are fully aware of the history embedded in each piece, and how its beauty is magnified by these associations. The pleasure of being around something lovely, imbued with the spirit and integrity of its creator, should really be profit enough.
Which reminds me of the wisest words I've ever heard on the subject. "Buy with your heart, but keep an eye cocked to the future." Only if you practice this approach can you be sure of having made a wise investment.
See the Savannah, Georgia (2004) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
David Rago is owner of David Rago Auctions, in Lambertville, New Jersey.
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