I really hated George Ohr. Not just his pottery, but him. At the tender age of twenty I was introduced to a significant body of his work. I was a native New Jerseyan and a blossoming ceramics dealer, and one bright 1975 Sunday at the Lambertville flea market, shopping at Marie’s Pottery Barn, I observed a mesmerizing collection of uncommonly red pieces, with twisty forms and scrunched rims. I could have all twenty pieces, Marie said, for $3,000, which was pretty much what my new wife and I had received as wedding gifts a few months earlier.
About a week after that was when I really began to hate George Ohr.
I drove into Manhattan to see my client and friend Robert Ellison (no slouch in the Ohr department, as the books and photos of his singular collection will attest) to sell him as much of my new stash as he wanted. I was pretty much counting on the $1,000 or so profit I would make from the effort, more than a month’s pay at my real job, which was cleaning floors on night crew at an Acme supermarket in Princeton, New Jersey. With the late afternoon New York light raking through a window and across a table scattered with my newfound pots, Bob tugged at his bearded jaw and said, “Let me tell you why I think these are wrong.” After about six undeniable reasons (too red, too clean for pots sitting in an attic for fifty years, late script marks, glazes reflecting light more as plastic does than glass . . .), I drove back to Jersey with my tail between my legs, wondering how I was going to tell my new bride about how I blew our life’s savings.
I continued my contempt for his so-called mud babies through the rest of the 1970s until I took a job at the Jordan-Volpe Gallery. No one who knows pottery can deny the quantity and quality of artware that passed through its door. While the gallery was known for all things Arts and Crafts, from Stickley to Grueby, Jordan and Volpe must primarily be credited for recognizing the scale of Ohr’s genius and singlehandedly putting him on the map. They introduced Ohr to Manhattan, in the heart of the contemporary art scene in Soho, and in the process turned $100 pots into $10,000 vases, literally worth their weight in gold.
I tried mightily to sustain my enmity toward the Mad Potter of Biloxi and managed to hold out for perhaps the first year of my stint at Jordan-Volpe. But one morning, I woke up, the bulb in my head flickered to life, and I fell madly, inexorably, forever in love with Mr. Ohr. I had been a pottery dealer for about a decade by that time, but I hadn’t truly loved or understood the medium until that morning. Before that day, I had shared the typical Western opinion that pottery was pottery, fine art was fine art, and the former could never be confused with the latter. George changed me from an art pottery dealer to an art dealer.
I started my auction company in 1984. It seemed like a good idea at the time, holding an auction focusing on Arts and Crafts–period ceramics and furniture. Seven months of eighty-hour workweeks culminated in my first sale, held at the Hilton Hotel near New Jersey’s Meadowlands in June of 1984, netting me only about $8,000. This, after putting my home in the balance. It was an unreserved auction. There were no telephone bids, no Internet, no experience, no common sense. I swore that evening that I would never hold another auction as long as I lived. A dear friend and employee disabused me of that notion and I continued muddling along until my fourth sale, which was held in Manhattan. A consignor entrusted me with a decent-enough piece of Ohr, an early funnel-shaped vase with a ruffled rim and a murky brown glaze. To my astonishment, and probably everyone else’s in the room, the vase sold for several thousand dollars and established my humble auction as a place where such a thing could actually happen. The pace accelerated from there.
Jordan-Volpe collapsed under the weight of its own ego around 1986, leaving perhaps one hundred serious pottery collectors with few options for adding to their holdings. It was about that time that Jim Carpenter, the man who sold the world Ohr by directly supplying Jordan-Volpe, called and invited me to visit his barbershop-antiques store in Montague, New Jersey. There, in a pine-paneled room, with barber chair, sink, and cabinets displaying occupational shaving mugs, were showcases filled with pottery. He consigned with me a dozen pieces of the best Ohr I’d personally ever been given to sell. It seems that my burgeoning success with presenting Ohr to a New York market, combined with the demise of Carpenter’s previous outlet in Jordan-Volpe, made for the perfect storm.
I was still relatively new at selling high-end Ohr, and I had little confidence I would do well with such wonderful examples: a teapot with a snake, a red this, a crumpled that. And the reserves, preset minimum prices, ensured that Carpenter wasn’t giving anything away. I certainly didn’t enjoy a runaway success that first time. But he was using my sale to test the waters, a transparent and immediate reflection of the current marketplace for Ohr in its most supportive city. Jim and I did each other a lot of good. Though I won’t argue that I got the better end of the continued transactions, I remain in debt to Jim Carpenter for the opportunity.
Carpenter continued to tinker with my sales: If a piece didn’t sell for his minimum he simply put it back on the shelf at his shop to await a more propitious time. If the market showed interest in a style of Ohr’s work that had heretofore remained dormant, he knew it was time to exploit it. The best example of this strategy was played out in the marketing of the later bisque work by Ohr.
It used to be that we thought the bisque-fired, unglazed, and deformed pots were “unfinished” pieces, stuff he never got around to completing properly. During my first visit to Carpenter’s, in the late 1970s before I began holding auctions, I saw boxes of bisque ware, the best of the best, languishing on shelves, unsalable, for $50 apiece, gathering Jersey dust on top of the Biloxi dust that had never been cleaned off. But here in Manhattan, in 1986, were five or six such pieces, estimated for about $500 each, in their fragile and stark power, soon to be discovered for what they were. A lot of money…
…This is not meant to sound as if I had a clue that any of this was going to happen. I can take credit for deciding to hold an auction and for moving my sale to New York (in spite of serious, even physical threats, from older, more established, and moneyed competitors). But the rest was the sort of luck bestowed on those who are too dim to understand and too desperate to quit.
My great fortune continued through the 1990s, with many high points and blessings. But the most memorable, that which brings the deepest sense of gratitude, happened one fine, full moon of an October evening in 1994 in Manhattan at the Kurland-Zabar Gallery, just off Madison Avenue.
The exhibition was part of my repeated efforts — as well as Ms. Kurland’s and Ms. Zabar’s — to get coverage for my auctions in the New York Times. I had been told directly by Rita Reif, the Times’s main art critic, that what I was doing wasn’t important enough to warrant their level of press. She was actually nicer than that, saying something like, “Hey, I have a Sotheby’s and a Christie’s auction to cover the same weekend as yours. What do you expect me to do?” I was persistent to the point of asking for face time in her office. She looked at me wearily and said, “You want coverage, give me something different.”
The Kurland-Zabar show certainly tried to be different. The three of us combined an exhibit of thirty Ohr pots, which were for display only, with the sale of seventy pieces of somewhat lower stature as well as a new book published by Kurland-Zabar-Rago and written by Eugene Hecht, called After the Fire: George Ohr; An American Genius. The premise was that the great Biloxi fire that had wiped out much of the city and all of Ohr’s earliest pottery and pots a century earlier was a catastrophe that released him from the traditions of his past, allowing him, at the cusp of a new century, to create something wholly new, entirely free. Like the phoenix, we suggested, Ohr’s brilliance rose from the ashes and he became the artist for whom we had so much passion and respect.
About six months before the exhibition I was on the phone with Gene, late one night, talking about how things are going with his writing of the text and my gathering of the pots. I told him that we had finally settled on the opening night of the show. We knew the Great Fire happened in 1894 but I hadn’t a clue as to exactly when. Upon hearing that we had settled on October 12, Gene said, “Well, that’s appropriate since the fire was in the fall of 1894.” I heard Gene ruffling pages, mumbling a bit to himself, and then he said, “Yes, it was October!” I was saying, “Cool! How about that? We picked a date to the month, a century later, of the fire!” when Gene interrupted me by saying, “You’re not going to believe this. The fire was October 12, 1894 — the evening of October 12, 1894.” The date we had chosen purely by accident, based on when we could pull it all together and when Kurland-Zabar had an opening in their gallery, was exactly one century to the evening of the Biloxi fire. And there was a full moon.
We sold sixty-five of the seventy pieces and, except for the hundreds of unsold Ohr books, which were part of the cost, we pretty much broke even. But what an evening. New York turned out for the event, including a magnetically attractive Jasper Johns in flowing white scarves. And, finally, we had a beautiful write-up in the New York Times art section.
Ms. Reif had come to see the show prior to its opening and, after looking around for about thirty minutes, asked me about the “reason” for the show. I had told her our premise and with a penetrating look she had asked, “Is that for real or is it B.S.?” I looked back into her eyes and said, “Well, we really don’t know for sure. But the work seems to support what we’re saying and, well, we have a new book and all...”
The review that ran in the following Sunday’s art section, a full half page, was very much in support of the effort, and I actually was quoted saying something about the immediacy of the bisque work and how you could even see one of Ohr’s fingerprints on a piece. It would be years before I could even begin to understand how generous and patient Ms. Reif had been to the three of us that day.
Finally, the new millennium, nearly a century after Ohr’s death, will bring the Mad Potter the fame he was certain he deserved all along. The museum in his name, designed by Frank Gehry (who, I’m told, upon seeing his first piece of Ohr pottery, was said to have remarked, “It looks like one of my buildings”) will finally, firmly, establish him as a true American master. The site of the Biloxi structure, so close to the Gulf that Katrina’s storm surge sent a casino barge into its foundation in 2005, is as fragile as the ceramic artwork it will contain. Some question the wisdom of that location. But there, under the swaying, moss-hung branches of the tall oaks, at the edge of the lapping water, on Ohr’s home soil, it seems the perfect harbor for a body of work that shouldn’t have survived, and shouldn’t have been overlooked in the first place.