Chorley collection of English ceramics leads to lively auction


Like Humpty Dumpty, the market for antique English ceramics had a great fall when news broke about two years ago that Scotland Yard had arrested Englishman Guy Davies for allegedly faking saltglaze owls, creamware coffeepots and candlesticks decorated with colored oxides. Authorities charged that Mr. Davies' handiwork lined the walls at some prestigious antiques shops and shows and was in private collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the scandal's wake several major collectors simply stopped buying, unsure whether what caught their fancy was real or reproduction. Mr. Davies will be facing all the queen's men when his case comes up for trial this month, just as collectors are starting to pick up the pieces they're sure he never laid a hand on.

At Christie's in New York recently, an amusing circa 1760 Staffordshire saltglaze owl jug (the head becomes a cup) similar to ones Mr. Davies is charged with faking, fetched a strong $55,000, surpassing its $30,000 to $40,000 pre-sale estimate. What made this owl a wise purchase was that it was fresh to the market with a documented provenance from the highly respected collection of the late Jean and Kenneth Chorley of Hopewell, N.J. The Chorleys formed their collection in the 1950s and '60s, long before Mr. Davies arrived on the scene. (This owl had last landed on the auction block in 1965, at Sotheby's in London, and was snatched up for the Chorleys by Tilley & Co., prestigious London dealers, who billed them a little over $1,000 for it and a teapot stand.)

"The Chorley sale was a shot in the arm for this business," said Raymond E. Lane of Art Trading (U.S.) Limited, New York dealers specializing in English ceramics, who bought several pieces at Christie's.

Among the rarities auctioned was the Chorleys' large and elegant circa 1755 saltglaze Staffordshire candlestick group modeled as two cranes. Based on Chinese blanc de chine figures, it sold to a New York collector for $110,000, exceeding a $60,000 to $80,000 estimate.

The English-born Mr. Chorley, a renowned figure in the worlds of antiques and historical preservation, was associated with Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia from 1926 until his death in 1974. Recruited by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to help plan the Colonial restoration, he served as its president from 1935 to 1958, and remained a trustee thereafter. "K.C.," as he was known, and his wife, Jean, began collecting seriously upon his retirement, aided by a mentor, the late John Graham, Williamsburg's first curator, who took them on buying trips to England and introduced them to the important English pottery dealers of the day. They bought half their cache in their first three years of collecting and completed it within 15 years. It was widely known among dealers and auctioneers that Mrs. Chorley did not add to the collection after her husband's death.

Both Sotheby's and Christie's competed for the honor of selling the collection after Mrs. Chorley died last year. Christie's won the prize, and many in the trade were disappointed there wasn't the sort of scholarly commemorative catalog for which Sotheby's ceramics expert, Letitia Roberts, is famous.

Ellen Jenkins of Christie's called the Chorley collection the best assemblage of English pottery auctioned in America in over a decade. The results of the Jan. 25 sale backed up her enthusiasm: 167 lots of ceramics fetched more than $1.2 million. Another 117 lots of the Chorleys' furniture, pictures and decorations brought the auction's total to about $1.9 million. All the items offered found buyers.

A letter to buyers

A charming "Dear Friends" letter written by Mrs. Chorley shortly before her death and reprinted in the catalog, set a clubby tone for the auction at which several collectors who knew the Chorleys, and a small group of elite American and English dealers, competed genially but seriously. "Welcome to the day I have been planning for these many years," Mrs. Chorley wrote.

"I would have enjoyed attending my own auction with people like you who share my interests," she continued. "I wonder as I write this letter who will actually buy my pottery birds, my Whieldon figures, and the other rare and beautiful treasures Kenneth and I lived with all these years, each with a story and a memory for me. But, I will have to leave it to my children to enjoy the sale with you and to my friends from near and far who may take home a memory of Kenneth and me and fill a niche in their own quests for beauty."

Old salt

The Chorleys chose their English ceramics carefully, balancing colorful decorative plates with rare figural groups. John C. Austin, a former senior ceramics curator at Williamsburg, noted in the auction catalog's foreword that the Chorleys "formed a very complete study collection comprising all of the elements necessary to be comprehensive. There are many rare or unique objects superimposed with good but familiar representative wares." Mrs. Chorley, a former stenographer and singer, admitted in her letter: "There was a day when I first married Kenneth that I did not know what an antique was. And I certainly did not know what collecting meant."

The Chorleys' best acquisitions proved to be spectacular investments. Their circa 1680 Lambeth delftware salt dish, nearly 8 inches high, modeled as a seated boy with yellow hair holding a basin, sold for $165,000 against an $80,000 to $120,000 pre-sale estimate. In 1963 Tilley & Co. paid about $1,477 on their behalf at Sotheby's in London for the rare piece.

Thirty years later, dealer Jonathan Horne came from London for the Chorleys' auction and bought their salt dish, apparently to make a pair for the American collector sitting next to him who owned a similar one, dated 1676, which Mr. Horne bought at Christie's in London in May 1990 for $296,560. That was an auction record for British ceramics and for delftware. Mr. Horne bought for his client every major piece of the Chorleys' tin-glazed English earthenware with painted decoration, known as delftware, including paying $99,000, over three times its $30,000 high estimate, for an early (circa 1640) Lambeth Blue-Dash charger in good condition, with a portrait of King Charles I in blue armor astride a rearing war horse.

Not all the Chorleys' ceramics cost a king's ransom: nearly 30 percent of the lots offered sold for under $1,000. One pretty circa 1760 delftware plate with a purple and yellow floral design fetched $275 and another with Chinese pavilions brought $605.

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