Whatever their specialty, nothing delights collectors more than a chance to view the best of the best. This Memorial Day weekend, the Brandywine River Museum will satisfy the questing heart with a three-day antiques show and a decorative-arts loan exhibition focused on a Pennsylvania specialty - pottery.
Opening at 10 a.m. Saturday, the antiques show brings 31 distinguished dealers to the museum's courtyard and galleries. This year's tie-in exhibition, "Crocks, Jugs, and Jars: Decorated American Stoneware," also opens Saturday and runs through July 10. Interested buyers can expect to see excellent examples of stoneware for sale among the exhibitors.
Competing with pottery and porcelain imported from abroad, American potters discovered good deposits of stoneware clay by the 18th century. The industry continued to grow, and Philadelphia was one of the cities that supplied numerous forms of utilitarian pottery for early American kitchens.
Exhibition curator Lee Wierenga explains: "Prior to the development of canning jars and other storage products, salt-glazed stone was used in most American households to hold food." This may sound like colonial Tupperware, but, as the exhibition title suggests, the charm is all in the decoration.
"While potters crafted stoneware for predominantly utilitarian reasons, some added skillful decorations and thus combined function with beauty," Wierenga said. As any collector knows, the desirability and value of stoneware lie in the one-of-a-kind folk art designs that appear on some examples.
"We have a broad range of pieces, because we wanted to look at the different styles of decoration for stoneware, including incised, impressed, slip trail, and stenciled designs," she says. The exhibition includes more than 30 objects on loan from other museums and collectors.
The curator drew attention to two superb pieces in the show, both borrowed from Winterthur, that illustrate the perfect function-transformed-by-art formula. A rare stoneware water cooler with spigot is covered with branching tree and vine patterns. At the center is an American eagle in relief, and the maker has added his name, "T. Whiteman," and the date, 1853.
Another unusual form was probably made at the Philadelphia pottery of the Remmey family, in operation for most of the 19th century.
"We have a beautiful coin bank," Wierenga says. "It's turned on the wheel, but then its finial is a hand-molded bird." Below the slit on the side for pennies is a floral pattern in cobalt blue.
Most of the stoneware on view is salt-glazed. Salt was thrown into the kiln during firing and fused on the clay surface to form a clear vitreous finish with an orange-peel texture. Wierenga has written an informative essay that fully explains the techniques and decoration of stoneware pottery.
She recommends two excellent references on the subject, both still available through used-book services: Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America by Donald Blake Webster (1971) and American Stoneware by William C. Ketchum Jr. (1991).
Visitors especially interested in the subject can attend a preshow event at 9 a.m. Saturday. For $25, participants receive a continental breakfast and walking tour of the show with stoneware author and collector James R. Koterski. Reservations are required; contact Donna Gormel at 610-388-8318 or email@example.com.
If Pennsylvania folk and decorative arts are your favorites, mark the calendar for another show next month. Antiques in the Valley, with 60 exhibitors, will be held June 18 and 19 at Oley Valley Middle School, 17 Jefferson St., Oley. For more information, see www.oleyvalleyantiqueshow.com.
George Allen and Gordon Wyckoff, who sell as Raccoon Creek at Oley Forge, will be part of that event, and both are devotees of American decorated stoneware. They carry rare examples in their inventory and are highly qualified to discuss the market for this distinctive pottery.
Allen emphasizes the role of local makers. "There were major potters in Philadelphia, such as the Remmey family. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, they were very prolific."
"They did a lot of utilitarian pieces, especially pitchers that are decorated heavily, cake crocks, butter crocks, all different forms; they made exceptional things. Many pieces are embossed with a cartouche bearing the initials RCR for Richard Clinton Remmey."
Allen said collectors were more interested in pieces with unusual qualities such as folk drawings, sometimes of flowers, sometimes of animals. He said banks, batter jugs, lidded cake pots, and lidded butter crocks were unusual and desirable forms.
"There are many types of collectors of stoneware. Some people just buy regional things, other people look for folk-art examples. I've seen entire collections based on one form - pitchers, or batter jugs."
Entry level for good antique stoneware is generally $200 to $700. Well-documented examples with distinctive decoration in unusual forms can easily bring four to five figures. The dealer agrees that the market for the best examples has remained remarkably steady.
"There's still very active interest in stoneware, whether it be a rare form or not," he concludes. "People just love it, and they always have. That's why the potters were so successful because people liked the medium and they could use the pieces from day to day. Prices for key examples with rare decoration are going to go right through the roof."
Stoneware fans searching for interesting additions to their collection will enjoy the sales at Crocker Farm auctions, a firm specializing in decorated American stoneware and redware. The next sale will be July 17 at the York Expo Center, 334 Carlisle Ave., York. For more information, go to www.crockerfarm.com.
Crocker Farm was in the antiques news this spring when it sold a recently discovered stoneware crock made in western Pennsylvania for $7,475. The piece was dated 1857 and bore the mark of Johnstown makers Jacob and Hiram Swank. The owners, who had once used the container as an umbrella stand, were delighted.