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Mocha ware appeals, like food and sex


Mocha ware has nothing to do with chocolate or coffee but is just as addictive. Buy one piece and you need another and another.

Mocha is slip-banded utilitarian pottery with colorful abstract patterning. It looks surprisingly modern, although most was made from the 1780s to the 1860s by commercial potteries in England, Scotland, Wales and France. Potteries in Baltimore and in Trenton, N.J., Liverpool, Ohio, and Pottsville, Pa., also made Mocha in the United States during the late-19th century. Mocha primarily was used for inexpensive tavern ware such as mugs and pitchers.

Jonathan Rickard, a Connecticut collector, is passionate about Mocha and in the last 20 years amassed a collection of 400 pieces. Last year he sold his advertising business, and he is now writing a book on Mocha. Mr. Rickard notes that an enormous amount of Mocha was exported to America, but little survives intact. In the 1950s urban archaeologists and museum curators searched antique shops for whole objects matching newly unearthed shards.

Dating Mocha ware is difficult since few pieces were marked, but Mr. Rickard is trying to by documenting shapes and decorative patterns. "In a Leeds pottery pattern book in the print room of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, I recently came across 50 watercolor drawings of Mocha that date to the 1790s," Mr. Rickard said. He also noted that he was given "a report of some underwater archaeologists with pictures of Mocha shards from a 1787 shipwreck off the coast of France."

What is Mocha's appeal? "It has to do with food and sex," jokes Mr. Rickard. "Look at the colors: chocolate, butterscotch, caramel and pumpkin, and the shapes are so sensual."

Mocha ware was named after mocha stone, an agate shipped to England from the port of Mocha in Arabia during the 18th century, which revealed a natural dendritic, or tree-like, design when broken in half. The name really is a misnomer, since the pottery was not made of mocha stone, just decorated with similar dendritic motifs. Historians prefer using the descriptive terms "industrialized slip ware" or "banded ware."

Mocha ware was made of white clay, hand-thrown on potters' wheels and decorated on production lines when the pots were leather hard. The decoration was applied as pieces were turned on foot-powered lathes. Sometimes a worker used a tool called a roulette to make impressed patterns known as "dicing" and "engine turning." Others coated pieces with colored slip, clay the consistency of heavy cream. Still others applied slip in dots called "cats eyes" or squiggles called "earthworms," or drizzled drops of "Mocha tea," made of tobacco juice and urine, on the surface to create the tree-like designs. The pots were then glazed and fired.

Until the late-1950s, collectors did not pay much attention to Mocha ware. But interest in Mocha blossomed as the public became familiar with modern art, and Mr. Rickard sees a relationship. He describes a Matisse-like cut-out on the side of a jug also resembling paintings by the American artist Stuart Davis, stripes on a mug suggesting a Kenneth Noland abstract canvas, and black and white checkered patterns near the rims of many pieces in the style of British pop artist Bridget Riley. The striking interaction of colors in Mocha ware decoration is remarkably similar to Josef Albers' paintings: a blue field with a spot of bright yellow, and a blue stripe with an orange stripe below and a yellow one above.

In the early 1960s, Mocha prices rose steadily, then leveled off, and increased again in the early 1980s, peaking when three or four wealthy collectors competed for the finest pieces.

Mr. Rickard himself owns the two record-price pieces. He paid $6,600 at Skinner's October 1989 auction in Bolton, Mass., for a large, caramel-colored, baluster-shaped pitcher with a marbleized balloon in deep chocolate brown, rust and white on its sides, "the most beautiful jug I've ever seen," he said. A month later at Richard A. Bourne Co.'s auction in Hyannis, Mass., he bought a rare and decorative double jug for $8,800.

This fall, Butterfield & Butterfield, auctioneers in San Francisco, advertised a sale of 77 pieces of English Mocha. East Coast collectors and dealers mistakenly thought they would get bargains since Mocha is not as well known in the West. Bidding in the salesroom and by phone proved strong, however, and the collection, which was estimated to bring a total of $27,700, sold for about twice as much, $60,940.

The highest price for a single piece of Mocha at the auction, $4,675, was paid for a circa 1820-'30 "thunder jug" (chamber pot), a masterpiece of slip decoration. A rare pair of chestnut warming urns, decorated in black on orange with blue and black bands over rouletting, and with lion's head handles, sold for $4,400. Two "frog" mugs, one with a solitary frog sitting on the bottom, the other with two, designed to scare tipsy imbibers, together fetched $4,950. Six pepper pots with dendritic, earthworm and marbled decoration sold as one lot for $4,675.

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