Collectors are always asking if their thrift shop discoveries will ever amount to anything. Rosalie Berberian proved they can. A pottery casserole marked "Weller" she purchased for 50 cents at a Vermont thrift shop in 1969 launched a collection of American art pottery, which she sold at auction recently for over $425,000. As further proof of her keen eye and good fortune, six museums were among the successful bidders.
"I had been captivated by articles in newspapers and magazines about new collecting crazes in America," she recalled in an introductory essay to the auction catalog. "I remember reading about 'art pottery' and the name 'Weller' among others. It seemed amazing to me that I had actually found such a piece. . . . I was intrigued. I had found a collectible."
She started making the rounds of second-hand stores and antiques shops. Once shopkeepers learned of her interest, they began calling whenever they got art pottery.
According to Dr. Berberian, at first "It didn't occur to me to attend an antiques show, although I did frequent the local flea market on Saturday mornings. I was having a lot of fun finding these 'old' things. . . . But I hadn't started to take it seriously."
She got serious once she bought her first book, quickly followed by her second, third and fourth. Doing her homework made sense; she was an epidemiology professor at Yale Medical School.
Questioning the dead
"I became caught up in the history of the craft and the lives of the craftspeople," Dr. Berberian remembers. "I wondered about them constantly and asked them all sorts of questions. Never mind that they were all dead. They were there in my mind's eye, and I asked them silently, as I studied their work, 'What drew you to pottery? What were you thinking of when you decorated this pot in this way? Why did you develop this glaze? Did it come out the way you intended?' "
Dr. Berberian never intended that the Yale University Art Gallery, in New Haven, Conn., would spend $7,700 for one of her first acquisitions -- a small bowl, circa 1907, marked "Redlands Pottery," which cost her $12. She found it in a New Haven shop window in 1971.
"There it was," she recalled of her discovery. "A small round bowl in a burnished coppery-looking finish with a large crab form impressed on the body, the claws encircling the opening, I loved it! I had always loved the ocean. No one knew what it was then. But it didn't matter. Eventually I found out what it was. But it still didn't matter because it was my kind of piece."
Her kind of piece turned out to be a rare work by Wesley H. Trippett (d. 1913), made of local clay by his short-lived Redlands Art Pottery, in Redlands, Calif.
Key pieces to museum
The top buyer at the Berberian Collection auction Feb. 27 in New York City, conducted by the David Rago Gallery, was Yale's gallery. "Arts and Crafts pottery is a significant aspect of American design, and until now Yale had no core art pottery collection," said its American decorative arts curator, Patricia E. Kane. "We thought we might not get another chance to get some key pieces."
Yale bought 14 pieces and set a record for Arts and Crafts pottery, paying $45,100 for a nearly foot-high "volcanic ware" bulbous vase by Hugh Robertson of the Dedham Pottery, in Dedham, Mass, circa 1900. It has a thick, bubbly, lava-like glaze of oxblood red, pink, blue and apple green. Experts at the sale called it the best pot ever from Robertson's kiln.
"When you see a piece like this, it shows how flawed is the premise that when color is smeared on a piece of canvas it is art of higher value than a piece of pottery," said collector Eugene Hecht.
"Hugh Robertson was one of my heroes," Dr. Berberian noted. "I could see him, hour after hour, experimenting with chemical powders, painstakingly tending the kiln."
Yale also purchased for $17,600 a vase by T. J. Wheatley, circa 1880, decorated with ceramic seaweed, shells, crawfish and mussels, a testimony to Dr. Berberian's New England roots. It's "the whole Atlantic Ocean wrapped up in a piece of clay from Ohio," according to the catalog.
David Rago called it "inch for inch the best Wheatley pot ever to come to market."
Ms. Kane was particularly pleased to buy a thin-walled vessel with applied tooled leaves, "flame painted" by Theophilus Anthony Brouwer Jr. at his Middle Lane Pottery in the Hamptons on Long Island. The price: $27,500. Brouwer's amazing glazes came from holding his pots to the fire, allowing the flames to lick their surfaces.
"The Berberian sale signaled the recovery of the languishing art pottery market. People are again willing to pay what they have to to buy excellent pots. We may not be back to the peak reached five years ago, but the market is up there again," Mr. Hecht observed.
Strong interest in Dr. Berberian's pots came as no surprise. Through careful study and constant upgrading (often trading with dealers and other collectors to acquire masterpieces), she amassed an encyclopedic cache telling the story of the American art pottery movement from 1870 to 1920. Many pieces had been lent to museum exhibitions over the years and were widely published.
Yale paid $9,075 for Dr. Berberian's spherical "Della Robbia" vase, circa 1906, decorated with bands of incised white daisies. It's similar to one pictured on the cover of "Art Pottery of the United States," by Paul Evans (Fiengold & Lewis, 1987), the key book for art pottery collectors. Della Robbia, the most original line of Rozane ware made by the Roseville Pottery in Zanesville, Ohio, was designed by the celebrated Frederick H. Rhead. Associated with many potteries, he was Roseville's art director from 1904 to 1908.
Unique works bring most
Like other makers, Roseville had many product lines. Later mass-produced, factory-made "commercial wares" were utilitarian pieces that are collected today but still bring relatively modest prices. What commands a premium, and what Dr. Berberian's collection was known for, was early, unique, handmade, artist-designed and signed pieces from leading potteries such as Rookwood, Teco, Weller, Grueby, Fulper, Dedham, the Saturday Evening Girls, Overbeck, Marblehead and Newcomb. With what became a disciplined eye, Dr. Berberian passionately sought works reflecting individual potters' best artistic expression.
Early in her collecting, Dr. Berberian fell in love with the bent and twisted pottery of George Ohr, the "mad potter" from Biloxi, Miss. In 1973 she bought several dozen of his "mud babies" from a New Jersey dealer for $25 to $125 each. She sold them at her auction for prices ranging from $1,400 to $17,600 for a large barrel-shaped vase with a crimped rim and a crater-ridden volcanic pink glaze, purchased by a Los Angeles collector.
( Solis-Cohen Enterprises