It's harvest time and collectors of Grueby art pottery are eyeing the current crop of available squash- and gourd-like vases and earth-toned glazed tiles made in Boston from 1894 to 1920. In seasons past conditions were ripe for bunches of good buys: fewer collectors and a more bountiful supply. Choice pickings are slimmer now, thanks to heated competition, and many expect prices to start climbing again after wilting in the recession.
More attention is being paid now to the organic-looking pottery made by William H. Grueby's factory than ever before. David Rago, a dealer, auctioneer and publisher of Arts & Crafts Quarterly Magazine, recently issued the first book devoted entirely to Grueby, "The Ceramics of William H. Grueby," by Susan J. Montgomery ($42 softbound, $57 hardcover, postpaid from David Rago Arts & Crafts, 9 South Main St., Lambertville, N.J. 08530,  397-4104).
Mr. Rago launched Ms. Montgomery's book in late August with a symposium, antiques show, and loan exhibition of 100 Grueby pieces from private collections. The well-attended extravaganza, with the trappings of a revival meeting for true believers in the Arts and Crafts ethos, was held at Craftsman Farms in Parsippany, N.J., once the home of furniture maker Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), the leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, which now is open to the public as a museum. (For tour information, call  540-1165.) Stickley had incorporated Grueby tiles in some of his tables and suggested Grueby vases and lamp bases as appropriate
"If anyone is interested in collecting great art pottery, Grueby is the one," said dealer Michael Witt, a partner in Boston's JMW Gallery, which specializes in Arts and Crafts furniture and accessories. "Grueby is timeless; the organic quality of its form and decoration will still be appreciated 100 years from now," he predicted.
Grueby pottery sums up the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement that was coming into full bloom a century ago. Adherents, reacting to the excesses of Victorian taste and the machine-made look of mass-produced furniture and deco
rations, championed objects inspired by nature which appeared hand-crafted. Arts and Crafts designers attempted to rekindle pre-Industrial Revolution traditions, so their work generally evidenced the touch of an artist's hand even though often it was factory-made. Intense Victorian colors, such as plum, orchid and fuchsia, were abandoned in favor of earth tones, brown, and what proponents called "the purifying color green."
"Like Stickley furniture, where construction is the ornament, the line between form and decoration is obliterated in the best Grueby pottery, making it truly a 20th-century aesthetic," claims Arts and Crafts dealer Nicholas Dembrosky, of Cathers & Dembrosky in New York City.
William H. Grueby (1867-1925) began his career producing glazed tiles appropriate for the then-prevailing Renaissance Revival style of architecture. He progressed to Moorish and other popular Aesthetic Movement tastes before converting to Arts and Crafts, and advertised tiles for fireplace surrounds and other interior and exterior ornamentation.
Subway and shower tiles
According to Ms. Montgomery's book, which reads like a doctoral dissertation -- strong on history, weak in quality photographs, and unfortunately without an index, Grueby completed large-scale commissions including tiles for several New York subway stations and buildings at the Bronx Zoo. Michael FitzSimmons, an Arts and Crafts dealer in Chicago, currently is offering for $18,000 a circa-1910 custom-made Grueby tile frieze decorated with a landscape from a Chicago Park District building designed by Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins.
Mr. Rago recently acquired nearly 40,000 plain glazed Grueby tiles, remaindered by the Pardee Tile Works of Perth Amboy, N.J., which bought the Grueby firm in 1919. The tiles were found in a chicken coop in the Garden State. Mr. Rago is selling them for $50 to $175 per square foot, depending on color and shape, and recently tiled his own shower with ocher-colored ones.
Grueby began making art pottery vases, which today command more collector interest and money than his other work, as a way to use wasted space at the center of a kiln where it was too hot to fire tiles.
NB Impressed by French and American art pottery at the 1893 World
Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he wanted to try his hand, and launched the Grueby Faience Company in 1894.
Grueby's simple and elegant vases, designed by George Prentiss Kendrick, a leading architect of the day, were an immediate hit, winning awards here and in Europe. Architect Addison B. Le Boutillier joined the design team later. In the Arts and Crafts spirit, no molds were used. Most Grueby vases were hand-thrown on a wheel, with relief decoration (such as leaves, buds and flowers) applied by young women who laid ropes of clay against the still-damp vessels and modeled them into prescribed forms.
What distinguishes Grueby vases from competitors' works are the opaque, non-glossy mat glazes he developed using a secret formula. "The wondrous thing about Grueby glazes are the ripples, the feathering, and the variations from dark to light tones resembling cucumbers, zucchini and watermelon rind," observed New York collector Robert Hut. "Many potters copied Grueby, but none came close to duplicating the quality and character of his wares," he added. The most desirable Grueby vases have a second color and modeled flower decoration. Top quality two-color pieces, with colors that don't run into each other, bring thousands of dollars.
Grueby vases came in yellow, white, oatmeal, brown, several shades of blue, and ubiquitous cucumber green. No two batches of glaze were the same, Mr. Hut observes, noting that, "Not every Grueby vase succeeds. Some didn't cook right. The challenge is to find the great ones, the show stoppers in intense green, yellow, ocher, and brown. The most successful are green ones which break into lighter tones at the edges of the leaves applied to their classic shapes."
Less than 10 percent of Grueby's vases are dated, so except for identifying some early pieces that were coiled (rather than wheel-thrown), it's difficult to date the fruits of his labor.
MARKS AND FAKES
Nearly all Grueby art pottery has an impressed mark, though sometimes a heavy glaze obscures it; few authentic pieces are unmarked. Some marks read: "Grueby Faience, Boston USA" with a lotus blossom in the center. Others say: "Grueby Pottery, Boston USA." Attached paper labels also were used, though few survive. Authentic Grueby ceramics never were marked with an ink stamp, but Michael Witt cautions that ink-stamped fakes of the circular Grueby mark are turning up in the marketplace on ordinary green-glazed art pottery vases by other makers.
After the heyday of the Arts and Crafts movement, Grueby's work was virtually forgotten for nearly half a century. Because it's made of easily chipped soft clay, much Grueby pottery probably was sent to the dump over the years. Collectors discovered Grueby about 25 years ago, when it turned up regularly at flea markets and estate sales, priced well under $100 per piece. Since then, prices rose along with interest in the Arts and Crafts movement and American art pottery.
It's difficult now to unearth Grueby vases from the fields of flea markets, so most collectors rely on specialist dealers or auctions. Dealers generally offer common foot-high green glazed Grueby vases for $1,000 to $3,000 each; smaller ones usually fetch several hundred dollars each. Cathers & Dembrosky, in New York City, has a dozen Grueby vases for sale, including a $9,500 14-inch high green mat glazed vase with sculpted leaves and yellow buds. A 7-inch-high glazed vase with modelled leaves and flowers is priced $2,500.
Among the Grueby offerings at JMW Gallery in Boston are a 6-inch-high green jardiniere ($750), a 9-inch vase with leaf and bud decoration ($2,400), and a scarab-shaped paperweight ($425).
Dealer David Rago will be offering three pieces of Grueby pottery from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dillenberg-Espinar in his November 7 auction in New York City. A rare 21-inch vase with green leaves and yellow buds, and a 12 1/2 -inch gourd-shaped ocher vase with applied leaves designed by architect George Prentiss Kendrick, are expected to fetch $17,000 to $20,000 each. A rare 16-inch-high two-handled vase with applied red and blue flowers may soar to $27,500.